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Thelma Prince, 84; assisted with research that led to development of polio vaccine

By Jenna Duncan
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2011

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Thelma Prince was just 7 years old when she began singing in the First Baptist Church choir in Peabody.

There, she met Robert Prince, whom she started dating in college and wed in 1951. Together they shared their love of music, staying involved in church choirs until the 1990s.

Mrs. Prince, a researcher involved in development of the polio vaccine, died Feb. 20 in her Arlington home from respiratory problems after a long period of declining health. She was 84.

Born Thelma LeBlanc in Salem, she moved to Peabody in the eighth grade and soon found herself drawn to the sciences, straying from the then-typical careers for women.

“She at a quite early age began developing ideas of what she wanted in life,’’ her husband said. “She was a person who had goals, objectives, and that’s what she went for in everything.’’

Mrs. Prince was salutatorian of the Peabody High School class of 1944 and earned her bachelor’s in science in 1948 from Simmons College in Boston. During her senior year at Simmons, a professor suggested she would be a good fit for a research position at Harvard Medical School, and she began working there soon after graduation.

At Harvard, Mrs. Prince was on a team that helped Dr. John Enders grow the polio virus in a laboratory, proving a vaccine was theoretically possible. Enders later earned a Nobel for the work.

After she and Prince married, they moved to New Hampshire for two years before returning to Massachusetts, where she worked at Tufts University’s School of Medicine before leaving to raise a family.

“I’m just putting it all together now — she loved her children and she was a great mother, and she had to put part of herself aside to do that when it wasn’t the norm to have a career and raise a family,’’ said her daughter, Janet, of New Castle, N.H.

As a mother, she ran a tight household for her three children, full of to-do lists; and she encouraged her children to pursue their interests and education.

“She was very, very devoted to them,’’ her husband said. “She showed her love for them by her steadfast way, by doing all those things you would want a mother to do.’’

After the children were older, Mrs. Prince went back to working outside the home, serving as a proofreader on a number of projects, including the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (3d edition). She had a lifelong love of words, and read the newspaper daily. She also enjoyed crossword puzzles.

Her affection for words gave her a bond with her daughter. A few weeks before her death, she called Janet to share a word she had found in a crossword puzzle that she thought would be good in her daughter’s Words with Friends game, a popular application for Apple products.

Besides her husband and daughter, Mrs. Prince leaves her sons, David of Winslow, Maine, and William of Tarzana, Calif.; and a sister, Marguerite Brooks of East Swanzey, N.H. Services have been held.

Jenna Duncan can be reached at jduncan@globe.com.