Once considered "the most beautiful woman in America", silent-movie and Broadway actress Justine Johnstone Wanger turned her talents to life-saving medical research. By Donna Fleming.
Next time you're in hospital having drugs administered via an intravenous drip, you may want to say a quiet thank you to Justine Johnstone Wanger.
Ninety years ago, Wanger and two colleagues published a ground-breaking paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) called "Influence of Velocity on the Response to Intravenous Injections". It discussed how best to safely deliver drugs to treat diseases such as syphilis without inadvertently killing the patients.
The drug Salvarsan had been developed in Germany 20 years earlier and shown to be highly effective at combating venereal disease, which infected between 5-10 per cent of the US population. However, there was a problem. Salvarsan contained arsenic and when delivered in high doses had the unfortunate side effect of poisoning the patient.
For the best part of two decades, scientists had been trying to figure out how to use this and other drugs safely, without much luck. Then, at New York's Columbia University, Wanger and fellow researchers Dr Sam Hirshfeld and Dr Harold Hyman came up with the theory that the reason the treatment was often fatal was not just due to the amount of the drug being administered, but the speed.
They coined the term "speed shock" to describe the way the drugs would zap through the bloodstream after being blasted in via a syringe.
The trio concluded that not only did dosages have to be diluted – though not so much that they were no longer effective – but they needed to be administered slowly and steadily. How could that be done?
The answer came to them via a device that had been pioneered by a Wisconsin surgeon, John Murphy, at the turn of the century. He'd invented what came to be known as the Murphy drip, which used a tube attached to a can of water hanging from a pole to deliver fluids to peritonitis patients who were unable to be fed by mouth.
The next best orifice, Murphy figured, was the anus, so the other end of the tube was inserted into the rectum and a hydrating solution dripped from the can that way.
Wanger and her colleagues decided to see if Murphy's device could be adapted as a way of delivering drugs straight into veins. They spent about two years testing it on animals, with Wanger doing most of the legwork while Hyman and Hirshfeld focused on their patients and students.
They found that combining a stand, a bottle, a tube and a gravity-fed syringe and needle allowed medication to be slowly administered. Their experiments showed that a solution containing 2cc-3cc of syphilis drugs delivered at 60-90 drops a minute was tolerable.
Who was Mrs Wanger?
The JAMA paper, published in 1931, sparked great interest among the medical community, but it wasn't until the 1950s that intravenous drips came into widespread use. In the meantime, other trials into the "slow-drip" method of treating syphilis were carried out. A team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York reported in 1940 that their research showed the rampant disease could be treated in just five days with no ill effects, thanks to the drip system developed almost a decade earlier.
The good news was covered in a New York Times article that paid tribute to Drs Hyman and Hirshfeld, acknowledging their training and expertise as medical professionals. But who, asked the reporter, was Mrs Wanger, the other person credited with the research? And what were her qualifications?
A bit of digging revealed that Wanger had no qualifications. She was officially a lab assistant, albeit one with a very sharp brain, a fascination with science and medicine and a dedication to carrying out painstaking work in pursuit of a medical breakthrough. And before she'd become a medical researcher, she'd been a Broadway and silent-movie star.
Then known by her maiden name, Justine Johnstone, she had been one of the leading ladies in the Ziegfeld Follies. A revue had been specially written for her and the press had called her "the girl who owns Broadway".
Her marriage to film producer Walter Wanger made her one half of a respected Hollywood power couple, and she hobnobbed with some of the biggest names in the business. But science was now her passion and a white lab coat had replaced the elaborate costumes and red-carpet gowns.
When her background was uncovered in 1940, her story made headlines across the country. "Ex-Follies Beauty Heroine of Amazing Medical Cure", proclaimed one newspaper. Another described her as "flinging aside her jewels and her furs to quietly labour in a medical laboratory".
Hounded by the press to spill the beans on her remarkable career change, Wanger refused to comment. But a quote she'd given during her Follies days seemed to sum up some of the challenges she'd faced: "As soon as a girl is called a beauty it is assumed that she has no brains."
Too old at 31
Blonde and blue-eyed, Wanger's stunning looks opened many doors throughout her life, but they also proved to be a burden at times. She grew up in poverty in Hoboken, New Jersey. Aged 13, she landed a part-time job as a model for a clothing company across the Hudson River in New York, earning $7 a week for walking around a showroom wearing different coats. Within two years, her beauty had landed her work as an extra in stage shows.
By the time she was 16, she had dozens of fans – many of them much older men – who would book out front-row seats and shower her with flowers, chocolates and dinner invitations. One of these "gentleman benefactors" proved to be useful when Wanger, woefully under-educated, decided to go back to school, where she excelled in subjects such as physics, algebra, geometry and chemistry.
But when she graduated, instead of heading to university, she returned to Broadway. After a photograph of her won a national competition, she was proclaimed "the most beautiful woman in America". She told the New York Times she would "much rather be considered intelligent than handsome".
She became a star of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr's musical-comedy shows and good friends with one of the dancers, Marion Davies, who would later gain notoriety as the mistress of publisher William Randolph Hearst. The antics of the two friends would inspire their friend Anita Loos to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, later made into a movie with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
Despite roles in a PG Wodehouse production and a show based on her life, acting began to lose its shine. "Perhaps things would have been different if I had been given some stage task, but all I was asked to do was look pretty," she later said.
The final straw came in 1926 when she was fired from a production because a new backer – Hiram Bloomingdale, of department-store fame – wanted to replace her with a younger actress. Wanger sued but eventually dropped the suit and never performed again. Her stage career was over at 31.
She focused at first on being a housewife. Seven years earlier, she had married Walter, a suave young theatrical producer who was quick to take advantage of her show-business connections to rise up the ladder at Paramount Pictures. He was one of the first movie moguls to champion talkies and would later receive an honorary Oscar for his six years of service as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Researcher and activist
In 1927, Walter fell ill and Hirshfeld, his GP, made a house call. He got talking to Justine about her long-standing interest in medicine and convinced her to enrol in science courses at Columbia University, where he taught pharmacology and carried out research.
The following year, when Hirshfeld and Hyman needed funding for their cancer research, they asked the Wangers. Walter was happy to hand over money, but his wife wanted to do more. She persuaded the pair to give her an unpaid job as a research assistant and kicked off a whole new career.
Initially, she worked alongside the men on a project investigating whether melanin (a pigment that determines hair, skin and eye colour) might be able to cure cancer. Then she joined them in their syphilis research and played a major part in the development of the slow-release intravenous drip. She also co-authored two other papers, including one on resuscitation measures.
In 1932, the Wangers moved to Los Angeles, after Walter became vice president of Columbia Pictures. Justine talked her way into a job – also unpaid – at California Institute of Technology as an assistant on a project investigating the effect of radiation on cancer tumours.
When she wasn't in the lab, Wanger led a high-flying life as the wife of a movie mogul. The Wangers spent many weekends at Hearst's famous San Simeon castle with other guests, including Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin, and held soirées of their own.
But behind closed doors, her marriage was unravelling. She'd had enough of Walter's cheating and in 1938, when he became besotted with actress Joan Bennett, she asked for a divorce.
She went on to adopt two baby boys and continued her medical work for some years, focusing on cancer research. But she also became something of an activist. Along with raising money for various United Nations organisations, she helped blacklisted Hollywood writers and directors who were suspected of being communists to get jobs under false names.
In her later years, her life was not luxurious; her alimony from Wanger was next to nothing and she lived in a modest Los Angeles home. She eventually gave up her research work but despite repeated attempts to get her to return to acting, she steered clear of Hollywood.
She developed dementia in her final years and died of heart failure in 1982, aged 87. In accordance with her wishes, there was no memorial service and no obituaries published in newspapers. She did not want any fuss.
A very tame tale
The fact that she played such a vital part in developing a revolutionary medical treatment was largely forgotten, until writer Kathleen Vestuto became curious about the woman named as part of the team that came up with the intravenous drip. Vestuto's book, The Lives of Justine Johnstone, was published in 2018.
It was difficult to find many quotes from Wanger, especially in her later years, because she had refused to blow her own trumpet. Over the years, journalists had to resort to quoting her refusals to talk to them because they couldn't get anything else out of her.
In declining an interview with Harper's Bazaar, she told a writer, "My story is a very tame tale, just the account of a person who made a shift in her interests."
An anonymous friend, suspected to be Marion Davies, summed her up in an article published after she was revealed to have helped develop the IV drip. The friend said Wanger "just wanted to keep on being one of the 'girls in white' – unsung heroines who labour in grim laboratories, without fanfare or excitement, content in the knowledge that the work they are doing will eventually be of benefit to mankind".
Justine Johnstone was not the only actress to come up with an invention that would have a huge and lasting impact. Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr helped to create technology that was designed to help the Allies during World War II but ended up becoming a precursor to the systems used for Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth.
And, like Johnstone, Lamarr was pigeon-holed by a society that saw her worth in her beauty, not her intellect, something she struggled to understand. "The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think," she said not long before her death in 2000.
Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, she was close to her bank manager father, Emil, who would explain the technology behind machines such as cars or printing presses. By the age of five she was taking apart her music box and putting it back together to figure out how it worked. Although science and engineering intrigued her, acting became her passion and, at 18, she gained international notoriety for her role in the movie Ecstasy, which included full-frontal nudity and showed her face in the throes of an orgasm.
Lamarr was also only 18 when she married a wealthy munitions dealer, Friedrich Mandl. In the mid-1930s, she would often accompany him to meetings with experts working on military technology, which piqued her interest in applied science. Mandl was controlling, treating her "like a thing, some object of art that had to be guarded", she later said, and eventually Lamarr fled their mansion on a bicycle, disguised as their maid.
Her marital woes and the rise of the Nazis prompted Lamarr, who was Jewish, to flee to London in 1937, where she met the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. She booked herself on the same ocean liner to New York as Mayer and en route talked him into giving her a $500-a-week contract, even though she could barely speak English.
Mayer promoted his new signing (who'd changed her name to Hedy Lamarr) as the "world's most beautiful woman" and introduced her to Johnstone's husband Walter Wanger, who cast her in Algiers, the film he was producing. It became a sensation, in no small part because audiences had a tendency to gasp when a close-up of Lamarr's face first appeared on screen.
She went on to star in very successful 1940s movies such as Boom Town, opposite Clark Gable, and Ziegfeld Girl, with Judy Garland. Her biggest hit was playing Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 classic Samson and Delilah. Her beauty inspired Walt Disney to use her as the model for Snow White in his animated film, and the artists at DC Comics based the character of Catwoman on her.
As successful as she was, Lamarr often found that acting left her feeling bored. When she wasn't filming, she would spend her time coming up with inventions, including a way of improving traffic lights.
She suggested to her friend, tycoon and aviator Howard Hughes, that his planes might fly better if he changed the somewhat square design to a more streamlined one, and sketched a new wing shape based on how the fastest swimming fish and flying birds looked. Hughes told her, "You're a genius."
But it was a pianist and composer, George Antheil, with whom she teamed up to help the war effort. Together they came up with a new communications system to help torpedoes do their job. They devised a way for the radio transmitters that guided torpedoes and the receivers on guided missiles to simultaneously jump between radio-wave frequencies, making it impossible for the enemy to locate them and block their signals before they could strike. This became known as frequency hopping.
Lamarr and Antheil approached the US Navy with their invention, which they'd patented, but it was rejected for being too cumbersome. However, the navy later shared the technology with contractors who developed it further, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, all US ships in a blockade around Cuba were armed with torpedoes guided by a frequency-hopping system.
The concept led to spread-spectrum technology – a term for wireless communication using variable signals – which is the basis for applications such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS.
Despite patenting their invention, Lamarr and Antheil never made a single cent out of it, although the US military did acknowledge their work. Fourteen years after she died, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
• The Lives of Justine Johnstone, by Kathleen Vestuto (McFarland & Company).