The Foundation originated as a non-governmental organisation in the late 1940s to respond to the major scourge of that time, poliomyelitis.
In South Africa, polio exacted a similar heavy toll in the early years of the 20th century to that experienced in the USA and Europe. James Henderson Sutherland Gear, one of South Africa’s pioneers in the field of virology and infectious diseases started the program to develop a polio vaccine in South Africa. In the USA in the late 1940’s a campaign to raise funds for research into the disease, called the “March of the Dimes”, was established by President Roosevelt, himself a polio victim. A similar campaign was launched in South Africa by the then Mayoress of Johannesburg, Mrs. Evelyn Gordon, and became known as the “Snowball Procession”. The event was graced by one of Hollywood’s most famous film stars at the time, Donald O’Connor together with a bevy of local beauties. Following a float procession from Springs in the east, via Johannesburg to Krugersdorp in the west, a not inconsiderable sum in those days of £10 000, was collected from the public.
A Trust Fund, not for profit, was established under the chairmanship of Mr. H W Anderson (the then Johannesburg Deputy City Treasurer), succeeded shortly thereafter by Mr. George W. Cook, a prominent local attorney. Work commenced on the construction of buildings to house the laboratories and animal houses and scientific staff were recruited and equipment purchased to research and develop a vaccine for polio.
The early days were however met with considerable controversy. The South African Union government at the time was not sympathetic and refused to provide any support for the program. Furthermore a number of prominent members of the medical profession itself were highly critical. The Director of the South African Blood Transfusion Service, as well as the editor of a South African medical journal, Medical Proceedings, were quite strident in their criticism – citing unknown effects of the vaccine and raising serious fears about its safety.
Nevertheless the £600,000 raised from, amongst others, the “Snowball Procession”, as well as other sources of funding, allowed the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation to open its doors in 1953 under the Directorship of Professor James Gear. Not long after Jonas Salk in the USA announced the successful trials of inactivated polio vaccine and South Africa became one of the first countries in the world to widely administer the vaccine. In fact amongst the first recipients of the vaccine were Gear’s sons.
By 1976 the PRF Laboratories and staff, still under Prof Gear, had grown substantially. It was no longer appropriate that they be administered by a voluntary Board of Trustees. A comprehensive analysis resulted in a proposal that the laboratories should be brought under the National Department of Health. This was implemented in 1976 and the laboratories and facilities of the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation were purchased by the then National Department of Health for the sum of R1.1million. On the 1st April 1976 the National Institute for Virology was born which subsequently, in 2001, became the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The PRF Board of Trustees decided that the R1.1 million funds now under its control should be utilized for capacity building and to sponsor and support virus researchers and research work into all viral diseases in South Africa.
The funds were invested in a responsibly managed portfolio of shares. An Investment Advisory Committee meets each of its financial advisors 4 times a year to review the PRF’s financial investment performance and reports to the PRF Board of Trustees. A Scientific Advisory Panel of experts in the field of virology was established to advise the Board on the disbursement of funds to promote research and capacity building in the field of virology.