Many of the Millers knew my Aunt Margaret Moon, who was a frequent visitor at Thistle Ha’ during her retirement years. She died last November 28th. During her memorial service, we shared our many memories of her life. But afterwards, I realized that the many stories that she told us about her business career during her Thistle Ha’ visits were not well known to her family. I maintain that the health enjoyed by our generation is partly due to the efforts of Aunt Margaret and her colleagues. Some stories from her life and business career are posted below.

As told by: Margaret Moon.
Aunt Margaret and Salk Vaccine: Based on a 2005 email I sent to Christopher.
Additional details from: Margaret Moon article by Nancy Simpson, Communications Director, Sanofi Pasteur Canada, 2004.

Aunt Margaret said that she thought she was more practical than most people, which she felt was partly due to growing up on the Moon family farm, north of Port Hope, Ontario. Although she resided in Toronto her entire adult life, she always liked being on a farm, including Thistle Ha’. She was particularly fond of horses.

She was a renowned high school athlete; she held several of her Port Hope High School track and field records for many years.

Margaret Moon BA 1936

Margaret Moon, BA - University of Toronto, 1936

She graduated with a BA degree in math and science from Victoria College, University of Toronto in 1936. She maintained close life-long friendships with several of her college friends, including her room-mate Eleanor Shearer. She then attended Normal School, and obtained her teaching certificate. Shorthand and typing proficiency were requirements for her teaching certificate at the time. In the midst of the Great Depression, teaching jobs in her field were scarce, so she applied for several other jobs. She remembered being awakened by a telephone call from Connaught Medical Research Laboratories very late on Labour Day 1938, offering her a job, starting immediately. In the excitement, she forgot to ask what she would be doing or what the salary was. She caught the train to Toronto the next morning and started her career at Connaught on Spadina Road in the filling department, where glass vials were manually filled with various medicines and sold to doctors, pharmacies and hospitals. She was told that her job was to become filling department supervisor, but had to start at the lowest job and work her way up so that she understood how her department operated.

At that time, Connaught was a non-profit research institute affiliated with the University of Toronto, developing and selling vaccines and other biological products. Its most famous product was insulin, discovered by Banting and Best at the University of Toronto in 1921. Because diabetics had to buy insulin for the rest of their life, she said that Connaught’s policy was to sell insulin at cost; Connaught operated on the profits from all their other commercial products.

Dr Best still worked closely with Connaught when she joined, and maintained an office there. He was very fond of tea, and kept a brass trivet on his hot water radiator in the winter to keep his pot of tea warm. Soon, brass trivets were everywhere in the labs. Later, these trivets were presented to employees retiring after long, distinguished careers at Connaught. Aunt Margaret’s biggest thrill, when she retired after 39 years, was to receive one of the few remaining “Dr Best” trivets.

She always talked about the “girls” she worked with in the filling, and later, the quality control departments. In the Great Depression, most of the girls went to work right after high school to help support their families, sacrificing their opportunity for a college education. During the war, they stayed at Connaught because their work was vital to someone they knew in the armed forces. After the war, they married and raised children. She said many of the girls were brilliant, and she always regretted that the lack of a college degree prevented them from reaching senior research and management positions. Pay equity was unknown in her era; it was only at the end of her career that she was given a substantial salary increase to ensure that her pension was the same as her male colleagues.

Connaught was a critical supplier of dried human blood plasma and penicillin to the Allied forces during the Second World War. She remembered that hours were very long; there was always pressure to be ready for the next ship sailing. The girls all had to wear sterile caps, masks and gowns, rubber gloves and booties, which were stifling in summer’s heat. Air had to be still; no fans were allowed in the filling rooms. Her famous practical solution was to cool the break room and halls by running fans across tubs of ice.

She remembered when penicillin appeared at Connaught in 1942. Penicillin was so new and scarce that all departments had to share one precious vial to do their testing. [In mid-1942, it was estimated that there was only enough penicillin in the United States to treat ten patients.] Connaught became part of a crash programme to supply enough penicillin to treat Allied wounded, including build-up of a substantial inventory in time for D-Day.

Even though she worked 5-1/2 days a week into the 1950s, she recently said that she thought that today’s business workload was worse: “We had to work long hours when times were dire, but we had a work-life balance in normal times. It’s not right that this balance has gone and people are now either working far too hard, or not at all.”

She told of a visit by an American bird colonel, who was inspecting bidders for a huge, multi-year supply of vaccines to the U.S. military. With her permission, the officer pulled a random 100 cc vial from the filling line, then later in her office, produced a 1 cc syringe and asked her to demonstrate that the vial contained 100 bubble-free doses. He sat there to watch her prove that Connaught’s filling machines were accurate. Connaught won at least some of the business.

Aunt Margaret and Salk Vaccine
I mentioned to Aunt Margaret that this was the 50th anniversary of Salk vaccine. Over several conversations, I noted her version of events in Connaught’s filling department.

Books and theses have been written about the politics and intrigue surrounding the introduction of polio vaccine in the 1950s. There were millions of cases of polio each year; tens of thousands died from it. A significant outbreak of polio in North America in the early 1950s caused parents to live in fear that their children would develop polio and face a lifetime of leg braces and iron lungs, or even die.

Two American medical researchers, Drs Salk and Sabin, were in a race to develop a successful polio vaccine. Most of their peers expected that Sabin’s conventional vaccine containing a minute quantity of live polio virus, sufficient for the body to develop immunity while posing a very low risk of causing the disease, (so called attenuated virus vaccine) would win. Salk’s fans were few; he had a prickly personality, and a radical notion of producing a polio vaccine containing no live virus (so called inactive virus vaccine).

Salk was ready for medical trials first. Production of his vaccine depended on a proprietary Connaught growth medium and mechanical rocker mechanism, soon to be world famous as the “Toronto method”. Connaught was contracted to produce several hundred thousand doses of Salk vaccine for a massive field trial in the United States in 1954. As soon as it was announced in 1955 that the trial proved that Salk’s vaccine was safe and effective, Americans were clamouring for the vaccine. The American government immediately launched a mass inoculation campaign. Faced with overwhelming demand, Aunt Margaret remembers sterilizing old-fashioned milk cans and shipping product in bulk by station wagon to Buffalo. The Canadian government was also demanding that Connaught reserve some vaccine to start Canadian field trials in 1955. To ease the pressure on Connaught, the American government also contracted a California lab to produce vaccine using the Toronto method.

Unfortunately, several dozen people inoculated with Salk vaccine in 1955 contracted polio, a much higher rate than predicted from the 1954 trial. The American Surgeon General stopped the campaign and ordered an investigation. Salk was widely denounced by his peers. The Canadian federal cabinet was split whether to halt the Canadian trials, but the health minister’s defence of Connaught’s sterling reputation won the day. While the Americans were consumed in their investigation, the Canadian trials and subsequent mass inoculation program were problem-free. Salk was always grateful to Canada for helping to restore his reputation.

50th Anniversary of Salk Vaccine

50th Anniversary of Salk Vaccine. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers

For some reason, the American investigators initially thought that there was a problem at Connaught. Aunt Margaret had to endure her department being turned upside down. They couldn’t find anything wrong, in fact Connaught’s operations and facilities were the best the investigators had ever seen. Eventually the data showed that all polio victims had been inoculated with vaccine from the California lab. The investigators found that the U.S. facility had released a vaccine batch containing traces of live virus. They didn’t think live virus in a supposedly inactive virus vaccine mattered. By the time all the investigation reports were in, Sabin’s attenuated vaccine had successfully passed its field trials. From then on, the Canadian market mostly used Connaught manufactured Salk vaccine; the Americans mostly used Sabin vaccine. Ironically, studies show that cases of polio contracted by inoculation since the 1955 debacle are from the Sabin vaccine, and Salk vaccine is now generally preferred in most parts of the world.

The international reputation Aunt Margaret earned from the polio investigation stood her in good stead years later. Connaught was being audited by a team of international experts, who asked, “is Miss Moon still in charge of filling and quality control?” When assured that she was, they decided they wouldn’t bother auditing her areas, a serious breach of audit protocol, but a strong endorsement of her reputation for integrity among her peers.

Aunt Margaret was among the first adopters of automation, introducing semi-automatic, then automatic filling equipment at Connaught. Her planning of the sterility testing area at the new labs on Steeles Avenue in the 1960s was internationally acclaimed. She developed standard sterile vial filling procedures, and later helped establish her methods as industry standards.

After 9/11, I teased her that she spent her entire career working with “weapons of mass destruction”. She allowed that they had to take extreme precautions while working with whooping cough, smallpox and diphtheria products. She noted that although smallpox has been declared eradicated, Connaught was one of two laboratories in the world contracted by the World Health Organization to maintain a small supply of smallpox vaccine to quickly contain any outbreak. One of her career highlights was attending an international conference in Spain, where she presented her data showing that smallpox vaccine remained potent for at least 20 years, longer than previously thought possible.

During the initial stages of the Toronto SARS outbreak, Aunt Margaret watched in horror at television interviews of nurses complaining about the mandatory order to wear gloves, breathing protection and gowns. She observed that some staff were not wearing their masks/respirators properly, and was upset that booties weren’t being worn. She told me that “they will become a carrier as soon as they untie their shoelaces.” She said she called one of the hospitals involved in the outbreak and had a vehement argument with a nursing administrator about her fear that this deadly disease would not be stopped unless all staff were in complete compliance with protective garb protocols. She said, “I guess that she didn’t want to know what a 90-year-old woman who claimed to be an expert had to say.” She also called Dr Low’s office and pleaded with them to demand that hospitals enforce infectious diseases safety procedures “we’ve known since the 1940s.” She was right to be concerned: a consistent conclusion among SARS reports was that health care workers couldn’t care for others if they didn’t first protect themselves from the infectious disease.