In 1959, Thousands of Vaccines Were Stolen in a Heist. Here’s Why That’s Important Now

We uncover ourselves at a precarious time in world wide wellbeing. Many folks are anxiously awaiting their convert to obtain a vaccine for COVID-19, nonetheless roll-out is gradual and disorganized, with several nations around the world dealing with supply shortages.


The situations are ripe for opportunists to exploit the scenario. Studies of unethical line-leaping by rich elites have started to surface, although other people alert of the possible for a black-current market trade in vaccines.

This isn’t the 1st time men and women have waited anxiously for a vaccine. The searching-glass of background reveals the uneasiness of emotion that accompanies moments like these, as very well as the dark implications that can crop up when evil-doers get advantage of them.

1 circumstance in unique stands out as an critical lesson for nowadays: when countless numbers of vaccine doses were being stolen by armed gentlemen during a source scarcity in 1959.

The polio epidemic

It was the summertime of 1959, when the past excellent epidemic of poliomyelitis swept across Canada. Québec saw the most circumstances that year, with the newspapers reporting in excess of a thousand cases and 88 fatalities.

Although the well being authorities in Montréal warned the community about the seriousness of the summer time epidemic, they also begged the populace to remain calm. This was far from comforting for mother and father who feared for their kids.


Polio infection could induce everlasting paralysis and was lethal in 5 % of instances. Montréalers rushed to the vaccine clinics, occasionally waiting for hours in the rain.

Vaccine output in Canada was confined to only two laboratories, with the bulk being provided by Connaught Labs at the University of Toronto. This put powerful stress on vaccine provides and Québec, like the rest of North America, shortly faced a vaccine shortage.

polio vaccine headline newspaper(The Montreal Gazette)

Higher than: Headline visuals showing the lone strains of individuals waiting to get a Salk vaccine. ‘The Montreal Gazette,’ Aug. 11, 1959.

A planned theft

By August, Montréal was ready desperately for extra vaccines. It was a wonderful relief when a huge cargo of the cherry-red vials arrived from Connaught Labs at the close of the thirty day period. The offer was plenty of to deal with the town, and the surplus was prepared for redistribution throughout the province.

However the redistribution by no means came to pass. A person person by the name of Jean Paul Robinson, a non permanent vaccine employee, had found the situation too attractive.

Robinson experienced been tasked with functioning vials amongst the numerous clinics. He realized there was a scarcity and that people were being desperate. He also realized wherever the main offer of vaccine was saved: at the Microbiology Institute in the College of Montréal.


At 3 am on 31 August 1959, Robinson and two accomplices broke into the college armed with revolvers. They to start with locked the evening guard in a cage with 500 lab monkeys. The robbers then broke the lock on the large fridge, looted all the situations of the vaccine and stole the guard’s vehicle as the getaway car.

In the stop, they manufactured away with 75,000 vials, valued at CA$50,000 (equal to pretty much $500,000 nowadays). Robinson rented an empty condominium constructing and stashed his prize.

The crime stunned the state. The upcoming day, the city announced it experienced fully operate out of its vaccine provides. Reporters seized on the circumstance, publishing reports of desperate moms turned away from vaccine clinics in vain.

The provincial police have been termed in, and a particular four-person group of investigators was assembled. They began by interviewing the hapless night time guard. He could not recognize the culprits – who experienced been donning nylon leggings around their faces – but he did overhear them talk about transporting the vaccines. The conversation provided the only direct: it appeared that at least a single of the males experienced been “common with clinical conditions”.


The law enforcement before long brought in a medical student for questioning. By the next working day, they had seized a provide of refreshing vaccine from the cabinets of a Pont-Viau drug keep. The confiscated vials displayed the identical serial range as the missing provide.

Still questioning both of those the clinical scholar and the druggist led the law enforcement nowhere, and over the next couple days, all qualified prospects ran dry. Even worse but, it appeared that the metropolis was struggling with an upswing in infections, with a different 36 clients admitted to hospital.

Chance and capture

Meanwhile, Robinson was attempting to figure out what to do with his sick-gotten offer of vaccine. Keeping the merchandise chilly was a difficult endeavor – if left unrefrigerated for also extended, the vaccine would be useless.

He filled the fridge (conserving one shelf for beer), although the relaxation of the situations were only left on the flooring at home temperature. While he experienced been lucky to provide 299 vials for a tidy sum of $500 to the druggist at Pont-Viau, dispensing with the rest of the vaccine was too risky.

Getting a possibility that the law enforcement were being much more intrigued in recovering the vials than catching the culprit, Robinson positioned a phone to the public police line. Posing as a anxious citizen, he declared that he experienced observed a substantial volume of suspicious situations labelled “Connaught Laboratories” currently being loaded out of a automobile on St. Hubert Street in the East Finish.

The police quickly learned the missing cases of vaccine, but right before they could be used, the vaccines would will need to be tested carefully. This course of action could choose up to two months, this means the vials could not be utilized even with the epidemic. New shipments of the vaccine ended up not planned to arrive for a handful of a lot more weeks.

The general public met the end result of the investigation with outrage, with the Montréal Star going so considerably as to speculate that the police experienced produced a deal with the guilty functions in order to recover the vaccine. Certainly, it declared, “in the heritage of justice in Canada, this circumstance ought to be unprecedented.” The stolen vaccines ended up eventually cleared for common use in October.

For their component, the law enforcement were being considerably from performed investigating. They shortly turned their interest to figuring out the culprit. They found that the man who had furnished the law enforcement suggestion was also the gentleman who experienced sold the Pont-Viau druggist his 299 vials.

Evidence ongoing to mount versus Robinson when the janitor of the condominium making discovered him. Following denying all prices, Robinson fled. He was found three weeks afterwards hiding out in a smaller lose on an “isolated backroad farm.”

file 20210125 13 327pxz(Victoria Day by day Instances)

Higher than: The vaccine heist of 1959 stunned the Canadian community and built headlines throughout the region. ‘Victoria Daily Instances,’ Aug. 31, 1959.

‘Beyond acceptable doubt’

Prosecuting Robinson turned out to be a significantly harder activity, and the case finally fell aside. Though a person of his accomplices experienced originally discovered Jean Paul Robinson as the mastermind of the heist, when the demo came all-around two yrs later, the witness recanted his primary statement (he would later on be charged with perjury).

Robinson himself proved imperturbable throughout courtroom interrogations. He painted himself a general public-spirited citizen who had only tried out to “retrieve” the stolen vaccines from the correct legal mastermind: a mysterious man by the title of Bob. Robinson claimed that Bob experienced set the full detail up before he had disappeared and escaped justice.

The decide ultimately dominated that despite the fact that Robinson’s tale was “peculiar and a minor much-fetched,” in the end, “the Crown experienced not proven a case further than a fair question” and he was acquitted.

As thousands and thousands of individuals around the globe anxiously await the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, this case warns of the feasible outcomes of disorganized and inadequately planned vaccine packages. Those people hunting to revenue from problems, shortages and desperation are out there, and it is critical that coverage makers maintain this in thoughts as vaccination programs are rolled out. The Conversation

Paula Larsson, Doctoral Scholar, Centre for the Background of Science, Medication, and Technologies, University of Oxford.

This article is republished from The Conversation below a Creative Commons license. Study the unique post.