The Cutter Incident How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis Paul A. Offit

Publication date:
28 Sep 2007
Yale University Press
256 pages: 235 x 156mm
25 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

Vaccines have saved more lives than any other single medical advance. Yet today only four companies make vaccines, and there is a growing crisis in vaccine availability. Why has this happened? This remarkable book recounts for the first time a devastating episode in 1955 at Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, thathas led many pharmaceutical companies to abandon vaccine manufacture.

Drawing on interviews with public health officials, pharmaceutical company executives, attorneys, Cutter employees, and victims of the vaccine, as well as on previously unavailable archives, Dr. Paul Offit offers a full account of the Cutter disaster. He describes the nation’s relief when the polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk in 1955, the production of the vaccine at industrial facilities such as the one operated by Cutter, and the tragedy that occurred when 200,000 people were inadvertently injected with live virulent polio virus: 70,000 became ill, 200 were permanently paralyzed, and 10 died. Dr. Offit also explores how, as a consequence of the tragedy, one jury’s verdict set in motion events that eventually suppressed the production of vaccines already licensed and deterred the development of new vaccines that hold the promise of preventing other fatal diseases.

Paul Offit, M.D., is Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics and Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Offit . . . has written a fascinating and highly readable account of the development of the polio vaccine. He also offers a compelling plea for a strengthened law to provide relief to companies that produce vaccines so that our nation may be afforded the most cost-effective and long-lasting form of prevention against many infectious diseases—an effective vaccine."—Stanley Goldfarb, New York Post

"The best account you will ever read about the interplay between big drug companies and bigger government."—Peter Huber, Forbes

"The book is very well written and reads almost like a detective story, with a nice balance between personal anecdotes and new materials not discussed in other accounts of the Cutter incident. It draws on meticulous archival documentation and on interviews with public health officers, pharmaceutical company executives, Cutter employees, and victims of the partially inactivated vaccine. . . . An important and valuable contribution."—Nadav Davidovitch, Isis

"The Cutter Incident is an enjoyable read, at times like a detective thriller, at others like a courtroom drama."—Jonathan R. Carapetis, The British Medical Journal

"Offit describes the development of polio vaccine, from trials of early vaccines through to the appearance on the scene of Jonas Salk. . . . The Cutter Incident is an enjoyable read, at times like a detective thriller; at other times like a courtroom drama. . . . [The book] reminds us how close we have been and indeed still are—to losing immunization as our most effective public health tool."—Jonathan R. Carapetis, British Medical Journal

"What is causing the shortage of desperately needed vaccines to combat pneumonia, tetanus, chicken pox, measles, mumps and influenza? Why is an effective vaccine for Lyme disease no longer on the market? And what are the consequences for our children? Dr. Paul Offit confronts these vital questions in The Cutter Incident, a brilliant piece of writing about a medical tragedy, exactly fifty years ago, that revolutionized the development and testing of vaccines in the United States, while forever changing the legal culture that had once kept punitive lawsuits under control. Offit’s remarkable book is certain to become a fixture in the increasingly angry battle over the impact of medical liability on the effective treatment of disease."—David M. Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story

“Dr. Offit brings us into the entangled world of medicine and law. Readers will have a better understanding of the impact that legal suits have on the vaccine industry, investment, and decisions not to pursue lifesaving vaccines because of liability issues.”—Dean Mason, President and CEO, Sabine Vaccine Institute

"One of the best overviews of vaccines from the vantage of events associated with vaccine safety during an earlier era that I have ever read."—Maurice Hilleman, Merck Institute for Vaccinology

“This book not only brings to life the main actors involved, it also demonstrates how this incident created legal precedents that forever changed product liability laws.”—Roland Sutter, World Health Organization