Like that your child's modern baby seat can't erupt in flame? Thank the Roman military of almost 2,000 years ago. Like heating up your recyclable pouch of avocado toast points in the microwave? Thank the American military of World War II,(1) when Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer discovered their culinary benefit while working on RADAR.(2)

In the 1930s, Dr. Ernest Lawrence of the University of California Berkeley had at first been jeered by fellow academics for lack of dignity when he discovered that government would throw gobs and gobs of money at you(3) if along the way you worked on things the military just happened to want also. Once he started paying physicists what the budget of other entire labs was, the era of Big Science began across the nation. (4)

The military didn't invent vaccines, they just made them successful

And we can thank the military for vaccines also. The American military obviously did not invent them, China claims to have invented everything by now, but it is documented that English physician Edward Jenner created the first successful vaccine, for smallpox, in 1796. There had been new ones since then but in early 1942, America was about to take on two military empires at once; we had declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 and then Germany declared war on us to support their ally. Generals had an uncomfortable science problem where little applied progress had been made in decades: diseases. 

In recent wars, where casualty records had some chance of being kept, more soldiers died from disease than wounds. Estimates from the Spanish-American War of 1898 listed disease casualties at 500 percent greater than the battlefield kind. Civil War records placed that at 200 percent. When General John "Black Jack" Pershing got off the boat in 1917 to end the World War I stalemate, the planet was about to endure a devastating flu epidemic, which then accounted for about half of U.S. military casualties in Europe.

Now with a two-front war, the U.S. military was determined to use prevention rather than therapy, so they tasked industry scientists with developing new vaccines - and academia wanted in on that also. First up was, understandably, the flu vaccine. The military's flu commission accelerated research on how to isolate, grow and purify the flu virus, how to optimize mass production, and how to efficiently determine efficacy and safety. It led to the first licensed flu vaccine in the US. 

Development of other vaccines also was also aligned with military interests. Before the Normandy invasion of 1944, the military believed the German army was loading V-1 rockets with Clostridium botulinum so they got a botulinum toxoid vaccine. Before the invasion of Japan (that thankfully never happened) they got a Japanese encephalitis vaccine.

And then some diseases can be a lot more pedestrian, though they still take soldiers out of action, as Kendall Hoyt, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Dartmouth College, noted:

Syphilis and gonorrhea concerns, courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine.

Why did it work?

The military received broad support despite using “no loss, no gain” contracts - they covered all of the costs, including numerous failures, but companies or universities could not make a profit on the research. There was certainly cash flow as motivation for companies or universities - unless you were involved in wartime production you had to have a concern about sustainability - but the big reason they agreed was likely patriotism. 

Publicly companies and universities then could use the language of public benefit, much as they do now, but privately they had little interest in breaking even even if it helped citizens, just like now. Yet World War II was a special case. There was a clear axis of evil that had perfected the concept of "total war" and only one country that could stop them both.(5) 

Universities knew they could learn some things also. Academia is certainly a business today, they exercise top-down authority and product integration, they have upstream and downstream analyses of costs and revenue, and they got all that from being forced to work with the private sector. 

Is that why vaccine development has slowed?

In recent years, academia has stopped being publicly anti-military, the way they were in the 1970s as university faculty began their shift to the left, but privately they are loathe to regard military or even corporate funding as being ethical. And government has created its own obstacles to vaccine development. The first flu vaccine was approved within two years but new medicines take up to 15 and cost an average of $1.5 billion with no improvements in safety. Epinephrine and needles have been used for a century but when the competitor to Mylan's EpiPen had a manufacturing issue, FDA forced to go through the approval cycle for those well-understood products all over again. They left the market rather than endure it. Only Mylan remained and they could charge whatever they felt like charging - and they have.

And their focus on government grants has led to a decline in public works research. When Ebola became a scare in the U.S. and our National Institutes of Health began trolling for millions claiming they could solve the problem if they just had a bit more funding, I noted at Genetic Literacy Project that for 15 years, and despite receiving over $300 billion, they had refused to fund a company that had an Ebola vaccine candidate; because they were not academic insiders. 

Who did fund the company? The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the Department of Defense.


(1) If you have a shortwave radio, you can duplicate the early days of electromagnetic cooking. You can cook literally cook a sandwich with it. Though that's not why they call it ham radio, that is in honor of amateurs Al Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray, of the Harvard Radio Club, who eventually shortened their call sign from their last names to HAM.

(2) RADAR was an acronym of RAdio Detection And Ranging. Now it is a colloquial term, so just radar.

(3) Lawrence was famous in academic and government circles for finding the best minds but it was World War II that made him part of pop culture; when Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr., who became famous himself for building the Pentagon and directing the Manhattan Project, visited the lab to talk about the latter, Lawrence gave him Robert Oppenheimer, who then founded Los Alamos National Lab, and Robert Wilson, who later founded Fermilab.

(4) He was a visionary in many ways. Contrast his bold futurism with 2008's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Director Steven Chu, who believed the only way new energy could succeed was $9 a gallon gasoline.

(5) We can ignore Italy, since they had proved incompetent even against Greece, while on the Allied side the Soviet Union had no intention of helping in Japan.