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12

The Great Polio Vaccine Heist of 1959



In the summer of 1959, polio swept across Canada, causing panic among parents who feared for their children's lives and health. In Quebec, there were thousands of cases, and 88 people died. Folks lined up for vaccinations, but the supply of vaccine could not keep up.

By August, Montréal was waiting desperately for more vaccines. It was a great relief when a huge shipment of the cherry-red vials arrived from Connaught Labs at the end of the month. The supply was enough to cover the city, and the surplus was planned for redistribution across the province.

Yet the redistribution never came to pass. One man by the name of Jean Paul Robinson, a temporary vaccine worker, had found the circumstances too enticing. Robinson had been tasked with running vials between the various clinics. He knew there was a shortage and that people were desperate. He also knew where the main supply of vaccine was stored: at the Microbiology Institute in the University of Montréal.

At 3 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1959, Robinson and two accomplices broke into the university armed with revolvers. They first locked the night guard in a cage with 500 lab monkeys. The thieves then broke the lock on the massive refrigerator, looted all the cases of the vaccine and stole the guard’s car as the getaway vehicle. In the end, they made away with 75,000 vials, valued at $50,000 (equivalent to almost $500,000 today). Robinson rented an empty apartment building and stashed his prize.

The crime shocked the country. The next day, the city announced it had completely run out of its vaccine supplies. Reporters seized on the situation, publishing reports of desperate mothers turned away from vaccine clinics in vain.

While the vaccine was infinitely valuable, one has to wonder what Robinson thought he was going to do with 75,000 vials of it. The vaccine had to be kept cold, or it would lose effectiveness. Selling it would only draw scrutiny. It turns out that Robinson hadn't really thought his cunning plan all the way through. Read the story of the polio vaccine heist at The Conversation. -via Damn Interesting


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