Swiftwater laboratory starts with Col. Slee

Original stone buildings of Slee's Pocono Biological Laboratories in Swiftwater, Pa.
What began as a smallpox vaccine laboratory in 1897
is now a major international vaccine manufacturer called Sanofi Pasteur.

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

Richard M. Slee was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on September 15, 1867 to Canadian immigrants, Richard and Maria Jane (Orr) Slee. He was the oldest of three children and had a younger sister, Elizabeth, born in 1871 and a brother, Alfred, born in 1877. Unfortunately, Slee’s siblings died before reaching adulthood; his sister died in 1883 from scarlet fever, and his brother died in 1878 from meningitis. It is uncertain if these deaths influenced Slee (who was a teenager at the time of the deaths) to choose a career in the medical field focusing on vaccination, but these deaths certainly impacted his life. Both scarlet fever and meningitis would later become preventable diseases through vaccination.

Slee attended the Long Island College Hospital where he studied medical education. He was an excellent student and received scholarships as well as the Dudley Gold Medal and the Lewis Anatomical Prize. When he graduated in 1891, Slee joined forces with Dr. George Sternberg, a renowned bacteriologist, who studied infectious diseases, specifically smallpox.

Smallpox caused millions of deaths worldwide in the 20th century. Vaccination against smallpox had been developed by a British doctor in the 1700s who discovered the disease could be prevented by inoculating humans with cowpox. While using cowpox as a vaccine was successful in preventing smallpox, the side effects of the inoculation were severe and many people refused to be vaccinated.

Sternberg was concerned by the public’s refusal to embrace the scientifically-proven cowpox vaccine and sent Slee to France after hearing about a new method of distributing the vaccine. Slee reported that the Pasteur Institute in France had developed a better vaccine with fewer side-effects. Also, the new vaccine was mixed with glycerin to improve its shelf-life. Sternberg encouraged Slee to establish a laboratory to develop an improved glycerolized smallpox vaccine.

Slee first came to Monroe County in the early 1890s. He had contracted cholera and traveled to Swiftwater to recuperate and enjoy the “fresh air and invigorating waters.” Richard Slee stayed at the Swiftwater Inn owned by Arthur and Ella Maginnis. While resting at the Swiftwater Inn, Slee met and fell in love with the owner’s daughter, Ella. Richard and Ella were married in 1892. Arthur Maginnis died and Ella, along with her mother, inherited the Swiftwater Inn and the surrounding acreage. Slee now had the perfect location to build his laboratory.

In 1897, Slee established his laboratory, Pocono Biological Laboratories; his first client was the U.S. Army. Slee’s lab was the first and only company in the United States to produce France’s improved smallpox vaccine. Only one year later, Slee provided all of the vaccines used in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In 1908, the U.S. Army created the Medical Reserve Corps. Richard Slee was among the first to serve, and his commission led him to begin his career in the military and his active participation in the Reserves. From 1913 to 1917, he was the Sanitation Officer at the 50th reunion of the Civil War Veterans held in Gettysburg, the Sanitary Officer at the Medical Officers Training camp in Tobyhanna, and completed correspondent classes for medical officers through Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

During the first two months of World War I in 1917, Slee reported for duty at Camp Crane in Allentown, serving in the Army Ambulance Corp. Upon his arrival in Allentown, Slee was promoted to major. In 1918, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in 1919, Slee became a colonel and took command of the Allentown camp. In 1922, Slee rose to national commander of the U.S. Army Ambulance Service Association.

While Slee pursued his military career, his laboratory continued under the guidance of his son, Arthur. The laboratory continued to be successful, creating the smallpox vaccine and began expanding, both in different vaccine manufacturing and laboratory space. According to the 1915 Christmas edition of
The Times-Democrat newspaper, the laboratory in Swiftwater manufactured vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, typhoid, and canine distemper to be used in the Unites States and around the world. The article noted that in 1914, the laboratory could no longer accept new orders and had to turn away requests for vaccines from European countries – the labs simply could not keep up with the world-wide demand. The estimated money lost from not accepting the new orders in 1914 was one million dollars.

With his laboratory in Swiftwater a great success, Slee joined the New York State Department of Health in 1923 where he stayed until his retirement in 1937. He returned to Monroe County and lived in Stroudsburg. Col. Richard Slee died in Stroudsburg on April 8, 1945 and is buried in the family plot at Laurelwood Cemetery.