When I called Harold Russell to ask if he would be interested in being interviewed for a story, the 85-year-old said he had just been tooling around with his lawn mower, and that he would be happy to talk.
Years ago, Russell was mowing his yard in Efland when his wife flagged him down to tell him he had a phone call. But that’s where the similarities stop. That call was from the Center for Disease Control. That call was with regard to a check he had coming to him for the use of a vaccination he had a part in creating.
“I told her to take a message, but she said I needed to talk to them,” Russell said. “I came in and it was the people in the technology transfer office telling me that some commercial company wanted to work on a product that I had developed. At that time if something was developed at the CDC, if they were licensing out a product to a commercial company, that company would have to pay to help recoup the CDC’s investment.”
The lady on the phone told him the CDC had some money they needed to put in the bank for him and wanted to know where to put it.
“What kind of money are you talking about?” Russell asked her.
She said it was about $10,000. It was money he made from the sale of the protein that he had been working on before his retirement.
“That was pretty shocking to me, especially after 10 years. I get a few pennies each year, a $1,000 here and $1,000 there,” he said.
That’s a long, long way from the pennies he would earn shining shoes as a young teenager with his brother at Parker’s Shoe Shop on Churton Street in downtown Hillsborough.
“I shined shoes for 15 cents a pair,” said Russell, who was born in Hillsborough. “I got 7 and 1/2 cents. After each shining, the customer would pay the shop owner — it was a shoe repair shop. I would get a ticket and at the end of the day we would count the tickets. The owner would multiply it by 7 and a half. That’s what he would give me. But I made tips.”
Russell lived with his parents and had a sister and brother. His family was poor, so he and his siblings helped out as they could.
“We didn’t have a television,” he said. “We didn’t have an inside toilet. We didn’t really realize we were poor because we were still better off than some other people.”
Russell did other odd jobs, including mowing yards, driving a school bus and delivering papers. And his shoe-shining abilities were accomplished enough that some people would come to his house to have their shoes polished on Sundays before church.
“I didn’t have to split that money,” Russell laughed.
In high school, the future scientist developed a passion for the subject. He credits one of his teachers for nurturing that love.
“Harold Webb, who was a graduate of (the University of North Carolina) A&T, taught general science and physics, I think,” Russell said. “He was the motivator that got me interested in science. It was exciting to me. I just loved it.”
After high school, Russell knew he wanted to be a laboratory technician and that he didn’t want to teach. He attended N.C. Central University. He worked throughout his time in college to pay for his education.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Russell sought to begin his career in laboratory science. This would, however, prove to be difficult.
“The opportunities weren’t that good. You would see a job that advertised for a chemist. You would go there and they would tell you the job was filled, and it really wasn’t.”
Russell said he believed it was because of his being black.
He would get his break when his uncle, who worked as a janitor at the U.S. Health Department in Chapel Hill, told one of the scientists about his nephew. The man asked Russell to come for an interview and he was hired right away.
Once on staff at the U.S. Health Department, Russell would continue to face racist behavior from his white co-workers.
“We wore those green scrubs that physicians wear in operating rooms. That’s what we had to wear because we worked with animals and whatnot, and we’d change and then go home. First day I went to work, there were several caucasians working, but they didn’t want to dress in the same room that I did. So I would have the whole dressing room to myself. They started dressing in the laboratory. I wasn’t the first black to be hired there. There was a lady from Durham who had already been hired. But I was the first black male in the scientific area,” Russell said.
It took about a year, but Russell eventually earned the respect of his co-workers. He got on well with his supervisor who was an Austrian Jew who had immigrated from Austria.
Russell would marry Margaret Martin, who he met when they were in the eighth grade. The two were planning their family and wanted to build a home. But Russell was concerned about the possibility of being transferred to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.
“The director said, ‘We’ve been talking about that for the last 10 years or so. Go on ahead and build it.’”
Russell’s father — a cabinet maker with no more than a third-grade education — built the house for his son and his family. As soon as the house was completed, Russell received orders for being transferred to Atlanta.
“We didn’t even get a chance to plant shrubbery or anything.”
The Russells moved to Atlanta around 1960. The work environment for Russell was better as the number of minorities was greater in the laboratories for the international organization. He would be there for nine years before deciding to return to school to add to his education.
“I was classified as a chemist,” Russell said. “At that time, there was a shortage of chemists. If you wanted to go back to get an advanced degree, if you applied and were accepted, then you could get a chance to go back to school to advance your education. The CDC told me if I could get accepted into a good northeastern college, that they would send me. I think they thought I probably wouldn’t be able to get accepted. I applied to several places, and when I got a letter from a professor with Cornell University saying he would be interested in talking with me, instead of continuing to correspond with him, my wife and I got in my Volkswagen and rode up to Ithaca, New York, and we met him in person.
For all of his education, passion for science and laboratory wizardry, Russell could just as easily credit his wife and her outsized personality for helping him advance his career. She held nothing back when the two met Dr. Norcross, the professor who, at the time, had only agreed to consider Russell.
“My wife has a very exuberant personality. She went running up to Dr. Norcross and said, ‘I am so happy you’re going to accept my husband.’”
Russell laughs about the meeting. He said he and the professor, who is now in his 90’s, are still friends and talk with each other regularly.
“I talked with him last week and he said, ‘I probably would not have admitted you, but your wife was so exuberant, I couldn’t turn you down.’”
Russell earned his master’s degree in immunochemistry. A fellow student tipped him off that if Dr. Norcross liked him, then he would be asked to stay on to earn his doctorate.
“One morning I was having coffee with Dr. Norcross and he asked me, ‘How would you like to stay on for the Ph.D?’ I said, ‘Well, you know I have a wife and three kids.’ Dr. Norcross said, ‘I didn’t ask you that. I asked you how would you like to stay on?’ I told him I’d like to very much, but I don’t have any support.”
Dr. Norcross was able to secure financial support for Russell through grants. He stayed on at the university for three more years, earning his Ph.D.
The Russell family then moved back to Atlanta to return to the CDC. In all, Russell spent 37 years at the CDC. He said he enjoyed the work because it was different every day. He was able to do what he loved and what he loved was doing science.
He said the CDC today is not what it was when he was there. “I didn’t recognize any politicization of what we were doing back then. The director was always appointed by the elected administration, but the other people were just scientists. They didn’t get involved in the politics. And the politics didn’t involve them. We heard very little political discussion.”
Russell said greater transparency with the work being done at the CDC and the public’s demand to know more and know it more quickly has led to a greater distrust of the CDC specifically, and science in general. Scientists at the CDC often are working with viruses that are new, and discoveries about the viruses are made each day. Some of those discoveries contradict information that was made public just days earlier. It’s not that the scientists were wrong; it’s that they are learning more.
“You have to follow the data to where ever it leads you,” Russell said. “I think one of the big mistakes they (the CDC) made, though, was when they first came out and said that the masks would only offer protection for others and not the mask wearer. If a mask will protect or prevent a virus from going out, it will also help prevent a virus from going in. And (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director) Dr. Fauci said, in so many words, that they weren’t recommending wearing masks. But that was because we didn’t have enough masks for the health care workers. I thought that was a big flaw that the National Institutes of Health, the CDC and all of them made. I guess they had no other choice.”
Russell said he never met Dr. Fauci, but he understands the pressure he is under during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I definitely feel for him. He has a lot of credibility, but people try to shoot him down every day. He has to stand up there and take it all. He’s just following the data where ever it leads him.”
Russell has now been retired for 27 years. Although he still keeps tabs on the goings on at the CDC, he doesn’t keep up much with science, saying it changes too quickly. In his time at the CDC, Russell said he doesn’t recall any talk about pandemics.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t working to unlock the mysteries of serious illnesses. “Most of the epidemiologists were physicians. They would come back to the laboratories and tell us about diseases that were spreading,” Russell explained. “For example, when Lyme disease first came ou, it was first recognized in Lyme, Connecticut. They thought these kids had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. But the physicians knew that juvenile rheumatoid arthritis wasn’t a contagious disease. This new disease, Lyme disease was being spread. These physicians came back to the labs at the CDC and they talked about it with us. A fellow from Colorado isolated a bacteria from a tick. One thing they noticed about these kids was they all had been bitten by a tick. Once the tick was known to be carrying this bacteria, then the epidemiologists came back and said what they learned from the guy in Colorado, and now we need to create a test to detect if these kids had been bitten by a tick or something that has been infected with this bacteria. We had one laboratory that was trying to culture the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Then I got involved. I was always interested in antibody tests. That was one of my specialties. Developing antibody tests to determine if a person had developed antibodies against a specific antigen that is a component of a virus. So, I developed the first diagnostic test for Lyme disease.”
His work on Lyme disease is some for which Russell is most proud, but it’s not his only achievement. He worked on a vaccine for Pneumococcal pneumonia, including being the inventor of a component in the vaccine. The discovery was a result of work he had done while in Gambia.
“A lot of very young kids were dying because of this pneumococcal pneumonia disease,” he said. “When I isolated the protein, I knew that if this protein became effective as a vaccine, it would save the lives of millions of kids all over the world. Especially in developing countries. I published the discovery and got the patent.”
During his career at the CDC, Russell would be the inventor on two patents and co-inventor on three other patents.
Despite his successes in the lab, Russell never forgot where he came from. He also never quit trying to help open the door for minorities in the fields of science, even when he still getting push back from cohorts at the CDC.
“I tried to hire as many blacks as I could. I didn’t hire them because they were black. I hired them because I knew they were qualified, they had the credentials. I was told one time that I was criticized for hiring blacks. I told them, ‘I’ll put my people that I hire up against anybody that you have, so don’t be complaining to me about it. I was just trying to help students and give them a chance like I had.’”
Since his retirement from the CDC, Russell and his wife have traveled all over the world, including Egypt, India, Nepal, China, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa and other places.”
“When we were younger we traveled all the time. As we’ve gotten older, we don’t feel comfortable going out on our own.”
For now, the Russells are happy in their home that sits on property that has been in his family since the late 1860’s. Their three kids are grown and they have several grandchildren.