Meet Freyja

a Swedish baby girl, of 3 months gestation (1962)

WI-38 (Freyja)

WI-38 was developed from the lung tissue of a Swedish baby girl, of 3 months gestation, aborted in July 1962. Her designation stands for Wistar Institute, fetal sample 38. This was the 32nd abortion sampled. The cells are used to culture RA27/3 for rubella and MMR vaccines and study lifetime of in vitro cell lines.[1]

In Sweden at that time abortion was already legalized. Dr Stanley Plotkin[2] explains:

This fetus was chosen by Dr Sven Gard, specifically for this purpose. Both parents are known, and unfortunately for the story, they are married to each other, still alive and well, and living in Stockholm, presumably. The abortion was done because they felt they had too many children. There were no familial diseases in the history of either parent, and no history of cancer specifically in the families.[3]

When the abortion happened,

The fetus — female, 20 centimetres long[4] and wrapped in a sterile green cloth — was delivered to the Karolinska Institute in northwest Stockholm. There, the lungs were dissected, packed on ice and dispatched to the airport, where they were loaded onto a transatlantic flight. A few days later, Leonard Hayflick, an ambitious young microbiologist at the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, unpacked that box.[5]

Dr Erling Norrby[6] reports:

One of my duties as a young student in the laboratory in Stockholm was to dissect human fetuses from legal abortions and send organs to the Wistar Institute. Such material was the source of many important studies of cell lines at the Institute, such as Leonard Hayflick’s study of WI-38 cells.[7]

Today, a majority of the world’s 7.5 billion people have been vaccinated against viral diseases with the use of the WI-38 cell strain and its derivatives. Nearly everyone born in the developed world since 1962 received at least one vaccine manufactured with the WI-38 cell strain, along with a growing proportion of the population in developing nations. WI-38 and its derivatives are still in use for producing many viral vaccines that are distributed worldwide today.[8] The mother of Freyja (WI-38) found out later how her child had been exploited:

In 1962, Mrs. X, a mother of several young children, was married to an immature alcoholic who was often out of town for his blue-collar job—and who wasn’t much help when he was around. She couldn’t face another baby. (…) By the time she found a sympathetic, female gynecologist, Mrs. X was four months pregnant. After the abortion, her 8-inch-long, female fetus was taken without her knowledge and its lungs dissected at the famous Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The tiny purplish organs were packed on ice and flown to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, where a biologist named Leonard Hayflick cut them into innumerable pieces the size of match heads. Several lab-flask steps later, Hayflick had created the WI-38 cell line. (…) When Hayflick realized that the WI-38 cells were poised to become sought-after “vaccine factories,” he contacted the Swedish lab that had procured the lungs for him. There, a young, mannerly Swedish vaccine scientist [Dr. Margareta Böttiger] with two small girls of her own was dispatched to obtain Mrs. X’s medical history, a few months after the abortion. She ascertained, by going back to Mrs. X and her physician, that Mrs. X and her family were free of infectious diseases and cancer, making the WI-38 cells acceptable to companies and regulators. In the process, Mrs. X of course learned that her fetus had been taken without her permission. When I sought her out in 2013, she made clear that she was still angry about this. “They were doing this without my permission! This could not happen today!” she told my Swedish translator. Understandably, she wanted the whole episode left in the past; she had no interest in the lifesaving uses to which the cells had been put.[9]

The interviewer Meredith Wadman explains further:

In the summer of 1962, shortly after the WI-38 cells were developed, Hayflick realized he needed a family history of the parents of this fetus to assure regulators that there were no abnormalities, cancer, or infectious diseases in the family, which would scare vaccine makers and regulators. A lovely young Swedish epidemiologist named Margareta Böttiger[10] was sent by Sven Gard to track back to Mrs. X and find out her medical history. And that is when Mrs. X first learned that her cells were being used in this research. (…) Merck makes more than $1 billion per year from vaccines using these cells. But Mrs. X’s fetus was used without her consent or knowledge. All I can say is that she is living in modest circumstances and has never received any compensation for the use of her cells.[11]

Although the child’s mother and family never benefitted from her death, others did!

[T]here were about 375 vials [of WI-38] left, each with a couple million cells, with enormously expandable potential. It was agreed that Hayflick’s former boss at the Wistar Institute, Hilary Koprowski, could keep 10 ampules, Hayflick could keep 10, and the rest would go back to the U.S. government. But when Hayflick drove cross-country to begin his new job at Stanford [in 1968], in the backseat of the family sedan, along with two of his three kids, was a liquid nitrogen refrigerator packed with all the WI-38 ampules.

A protracted legal battle ensued. The NIH called Hayflick’s actions theft. Hayflick fought back with a top intellectual property lawyer from Silicon Valley, Bill Fenwick, who would later represent Steve Jobs. Hayflick resigned from Stanford because they did not support him and found himself jobless, with a large family, and no immediate source of income because no one would hire him. Some people in the biological community were irate with the government for turning Hayflick into a thief. But, in 1974, Hayflick inked a deal with Merck worth up to $1 million to him personally to provide cells for Merck’s rubella vaccine.[12]


[1] Dr Leonard Hayflick (1928- ). Professor of Anatomy at the UCSF School of Medicine, and former Professor of Medical Microbiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. He is known for discovering that normal human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro. This is known as the Hayflick limit. His discoveries overturned a 60-year old dogma that all cultured cells are immortal. Hayflick demonstrated that normal cells have a memory and can remember at what doubling level they have reached. He demonstrated that his normal human cell strains were free from contaminating viruses. His cell strain WI-38 soon replaced primary monkey kidney cells and became the substrate for the production of most of the world’s human virus vaccines. <>


[3] Rene Leiva, A Brief History of Human Diploid Cell Strains, in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, vol. 6, issue 3, autumn 2006, pp. 443-451

[4] This academic paper: Hayflick L, Moorhead PS. (1961) The serial cultivation of human diploid cell strains. Experimental Cell Research, 25: 585‒621.

[5] Tyrell DAJ, Bynoe ML, Buckland FE, Hayflick L. (18 August 1962) The cultivation in human-embryo cells of a virus (DC) causing colds in man. Lancet 2 (7251): 320‒322.

[6] Interview with Leonard Hayflick. A Controversial Life (31 May 2018)

[7] Dr Sven Gard (1905-98). Swedish virologist who played a decisive role in the eradication of polio. He was born in 1905 and grew up in Södermalm, Stockholm. In college at Södra Latin, Gard showed a talent for mathematics and natural sciences. He studied medicine and received a medical candidate degree in 1929 and a medical licentiate degree in 1934 at the Karolinska Institutet (KI). He early came in contact with microbiology, especially virology since the polio epidemics emerged as an ever-increasing threat in the 20th century. He made decisive action for the development of the Swedish killed polio vaccine. With this vaccine, the disease was eradicated from our country. < >

Extended text about Sven Gard (PDF). Text written by Erling Norrby. Submitted to Grant’s Office at Karolinska Institutet 2018-11-20, upon request, since Erling knew Sven Gard well, worked with him and also has written about him in his books. <>


[9] Leonard Hayflick et al., “The Limited In Vitro Lifetime of Human Diploid Cell Strains,” Experimental Cell Research 37, (1965): 615. See

[10] Dr Peter McCullagh, The Fetus As Transplant Donor: Scientific, Social and Ethical Perspectives. (John Wiley and Sons, 1987).

[11] Dr Ian Donald (1910-87). Physician who pioneered the diagnostic use of ultrasound in obstetrics. <>