He was born in Warsaw to a family with Jewish roots. He graduated from the Secondary School of Mikołaj Rej, and then medicine at the University of Warsaw. From the age of twelve he also studied music at the conservatory. After the outbreak of the war, he managed to get to Rome, where he studied piano at the Saint Cecilia Conservatory. In 1940, he and his family settled in Brazil. It was where he began to work on a vaccine against yellow fever. Four years later, he moved to the United States, where he continued his research
Koprowski’s vaccine was first administered in February 1950, and the first mass vaccination took place eight years later in Congo. Thanks to the convenient oral administration form, more than 250,000 children and infants were vaccinated in just six weeks. For over 30 years (1957-1991), Koprowski managed the prestigious Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. He was also president of the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories and the Neurovirology Center at Thomas Jefferson University, as well as a consultant to the World Health Organization.
“The technician and I drank the first vaccine, but you have to be fair – we had antibodies. But we wanted to make sure our vaccine had no side effects.””
While working in the United States, he did not forget about his native country. From 1951, the polio epidemic was ongoing in Poland, initially 2-3 thousand children suffered from it annually, and in 1958 – as many as 6 thousand. Thanks to Koprowski’s efforts, his vaccine was able to reach Poland.
In the fall of 1959, on the initiative of the then director of the National Institute of Hygiene in Warsaw, prof. Feliks Przesmycki, mass vaccinations began. Koprowski managed to obtain 9 million doses from the pharmaceutical company Wyeth, which were distributed within eight months. The effect was immediate: in 1959, more than 1,000 cases of the disease were reported, four years later – only 30 new cases. The death toll dropped from several hundred a year to just two.
Koprowski was a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 2010, he was the laureate of the first edition of the “Outstanding Pole” competition run by the Foundation of the Polish Promotional Emblem “Teraz Polska”. In 2018, posthumously, he was honoured by the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, with the Order of the White Eagle. He died in 2013 in Philadelphia.