“You set up an experiment to test the theory, and most of the time it’s not the way you thought it would be. But that’s the way you learn. You go from hypothesis to hypothesis. And it’s exciting because that’s the way we learn to treat, to diagnose, and to prevent illness.”
Lewis L. Coriell, MD, PhD
Virologist and Pediatrician
June 19, 1911 – June 19, 2001
Lewis L. Coriell was born in the farming community of Sciotoville, in southern Ohio. While he was still a young child, his family moved to Montana toward more promising agricultural opportunities. It has been written that “the aspects of character, personality, temperament, and intellect that marked Dr. Coriell’s exceptional professional life… can easily be traced to his Montana upbringing.”i
Education and Early Career
Beginning his academic journey at the University of Montana, Lewis Coriell completed undergraduate studies in biology and subsequently earned a master’s degree in bacteriology and immunology in 1936. That same year, he married fellow student Ester Lentz; they would remain by each other’s side for the next 60 years. The newlyweds moved to the University of Kansas so he could pursue doctoral studies in immunology. While there, Dr. Coriell published his first article on an aspect of science he would revolutionize: The storage of cells by freezing. Lewis Coriell earned his doctorate in 1940 and was awarded his medical degree in 1942. The young researcher was drawn to the field of virology – the study of viruses as they evolve and infect. At this time, bacterial infections presented themselves most often in children. This combination led Dr. Coriell to seek out a residency in pediatrics. As none were immediately available, he chose a cardiology residency at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI. As it happens, the Coriells’ time in Detroit was brief.
By 1943, World War II was raging and Dr. Coriell was called to service with the United States Army Medical Command’s Biological Research Division at Fort Detrick, MD. It was here that his research in cell cultivation began. After the war, Dr. Coriell began his ideal pediatric residency under Dr. Joseph Stokes, Jr., physician-in-chief at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). To his delight, Dr. Stokes placed great emphasis on research and was instrumental in attracting federal funds to research childhood disease at his institution. The ability to translate research into patient care inspired Dr. Coriell. He saw how research was essential to the treatment of his patients suffering the devastating effects of viruses like small pox, mumps, and polio.
Adventures in Cell Culture
By the time Dr. Coriell arrived in Philadelphia, virologists knew they had to grow viruses in cell culture to prepare purified viruses for the manufacture of vaccines. However, contamination was rife in the laboratory and proving to be a major obstacle. At CHOP, along with his colleagues, Dr. Coriell perfected the technique to culture human tissue in a sterile host that does not produce its own antibodies. The ability to sustain living human cells in culture – and keep them from being contaminated – led to a key breakthrough in polio research: it enabled scientists to grow the polio virus and work toward the first vaccine.
Moving to Camden and Taking on Polio
By the early 1950’s, an acute infectious disease called polio was spreading from person to person very quickly across the United States, striking fear into citizens, costing children their lives and crippling those who survived. In 1949, Dr. Coriell arrived in Camden, NJ, as medical director of Camden Municipal Hospital, one of the country’s last infectious disease hospitals and home to the majority of the region’s polio patients. In 1951, Dr. Coriell was appointed field director of the Polio Prevention Study and directed the successful gamma globulin field trials.
By 1954, the Salk polio vaccine could be made in large quantities and was ready for human clinical trials. Based on his success shepherding the gamma globulin field trials, Dr. Coriell was chosen by the National Poliomyelitis Foundation to evaluate the Salk polio virus vaccine clinical trials in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. The success of the evaluation program led to the release of the Salk vaccine on the national level. Before the trials began in 1955, approximately 20,000 new polio cases were being reported each year. By 1960, cases were reduced to 3,000 per year. By 1979, that number was just 10 each year. Recognizing his contribution, Dr. Coriell received the 1957 International Poliomyelitis Congress Presidential Medal. Soon after, he became chairman of the Committee on the Control of Infectious Diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which formulated the vaccination procedures for all children in this critical period.
In 1953, Dr. Coriell initiated a campaign to build the first non-profit academic medical research institute in South Jersey. Under his guidance, the Institute for Medical Research began research in cancer, human cytogenetics, infectious diseases, and methods to improve cell culture techniques. The history of the Institute’s accomplishments included Dr. Coriell’s foresight in calling for the establishment of a central tissue culture bank and cell registry to certify and maintain cell cultures. It began with a partnership with the National Institutes of Health to create the first standardized cell repository. Today, the Institute is home to the world’s most diverse collection of cell lines and DNA samples available to researchers.
Working with his colleague, Dr. Gary McGarrity, Dr. Coriell applied infection control technology – specifically laminar flow – to create the laminar flow hood that is vital to infection control in laboratories, operating rooms, and hospital rooms around the world.
Dr. Coriell’s pioneering techniques for characterizing, freezing, and storing non-contaminated cell cultures in liquid nitrogen constitute one of the greatest contributions to modern human genetics.
Dr. Coriell retired in 1985. To honor the occasion, the institute he founded was renamed the Coriell Institute for Medical Research. He remained involved in several ways as a member of the Board of Trustees and often spoke with groups about the Institute’s history. Following his retirement, Dr. Coriell was elected president of the prestigious College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest medical society in America. Dr. Coriell is the only New Jersey physician to receive this honor.
Dr. Coriell, a pioneering researcher and physician, died on June 19, 2001, in Southern New Jersey. It was his 90th birthday.
A Legacy in Science
Dr. Coriell’s accomplishments in science are indeed many. Perhaps Dr. Coriell’s most enduring legacy was his generosity in knowledge and his ability to bring scientists together to explore research questions and collaborate on solutions. Several important names in science were drawn to join or spend time at the Institute, including: Warren W. Nichols, Ray Dutcher, Richard Mulivor, Etienne Lasfargues, Jesse Charney, Arthur Greene, Daniel Moore, and a collaboration with Drs. Albert Levan and Joe Hin Tijo, who first discovered that humans have 46 chromosomes.
Dr. Coriell also created an institute that is a well-respected resident of the Greater Philadelphia region and known as a leader in research worldwide.
Dr. Coriell’s vision is now our vision. Today, Coriell staff and scientists collaborate on scientific ideas and programs to improve human health.
The Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative® research study is studying the utility of using your genetic information to tailor treatments and medications for you. And building on Dr. Coriell’s innovations in cell biology, we are playing an important role in cutting-edge stem cell research to unlock the code of human disease, including Parkinson’s and heart disease. Coriell offers a range of custom research services that have long supported national and international science. In the field of biobanking, Coriell supports research all over the world from its renowned and diverse cell collections.
Our innovation today is a testament to Dr. Coriell’s pioneering past. More importantly, our innovation is a commitment to your future.
i O’Donnell, John. Coriell; The Coriell Institute for Medical Research and a Half Century of Science. Massachusetts: SHP, 2002.