Polio conquered: March 26, 1953

On a national radio show, a scientist named Jonas Salk tells the American public something it had wanted to hear for a long time—that he had developed a vaccine that could finally wipe out polio, one of the most frightening diseases of the 20th century.

Polio epidemics had become a recurring nightmare in the U.S., particularly during the summer, which became known as “polio season.” Just a year earlier, in 1952, one of the worst ones had occurred, with almost 60,000 cases reported, including 3,000 deaths. Many others were paralyzed.  Most were children.

It reached the point of near panic in some places. Public swimming pools closed in the middle of summer.  People in movie theaters were advised not to sit next to each other. Some insurance companies started selling polio insurance for new babies.  According to polls taken at the time, the only thing Americans feared more than polio was nuclear war.

What made the disease particularly insidious is that it usually struck without warning; it was impossible to tell who would get the disease and who would be spared. A bad cough could turn into paralysis in a short period of time, as the virus would enter a person’s body through their mouth, quickly grow in the intestines, then spread through blood vessels into the nervous system.

Often patients required long quarantine periods during which children could be separated from their parents for a long time.  Some had to spend months, if not longer, in huge, expensive devices called “iron lungs,” which would help them breathe. Others ended up needing braces and crutches to walk, or were confined to wheelchairs.

So, when Salk made his radio announcement about a potential vaccine, it was a cause for celebration—even though his sample for the first test was small. (It did include Salk, his wife, and their three sons.)  In 1954, however, a huge clinical trial began, in which the vaccine or a placebo was given to almost 2 million American school children, and by April, 1955, it was deemed that the vaccine was safe and effective.  A massive nationwide inoculation program got underway.  By 1957, the first year Salk’s vaccine was widely available, the number of new polio cases dropped to 6,000, one- tenth of what the number had been only five years earlier.

Salk had devised a unique and somewhat controversial approach.  While most scientists believed that an effective vaccine could be developed only with live viruses, he developed a “killed-virus” vaccine by growing samples of the virus, then deactivating them by adding formaldehyde so they could no longer reproduce.  By injecting the benign strains of the virus into the bloodstream, the vaccine tricked a person’s immune system into creating protective antibodies.

Although Salk became a celebrity, he remained humble  and little interested in profiting from his discovery.  During an interview with the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, the scientist was asked who owned the patent. “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk responded.  “There is no patent.  Would you patent the sun?”

Salk’s research at the University of Pittsburgh was largely funded by the March of Dimes Foundation, which was started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a polio victim. Instead of soliciting large donations from a few wealthy donors, the March of Dimes took a very different, grass-roots  approach to fundraising.  Using public endorsements from big-name celebrities like Mickey Rooney. Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley, it sought small donations from millions of people.  That became a model for other charity organizations that began mixing celebrity appeals and very public campaigns to raise money for medical research.

One other big impact of polio was the role it played in the growth of the disability rights movement.  After people who had become disabled as a result of polio left rehabilitation centers, they quickly became frustrated by their lack of mobility and access to public transportation and buildings.  As those polio victims matured, many became active in pushing legislation, such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Polio and the fear of it also left its mark on attitudes about public health, mainly in local ordinances designed to encourage more sanitary behavior—such as the proliferation of “No Spitting” laws in many American cities.

As for Jonas Salk, he launched his own research organization known as the Salk Center for Biological Studies in 1963. There he and other scientists focused on such diseases as multiple sclerosis and cancer. Salk served as the center's director until 1975. Later in his career, he studied AIDS and HIV.

He died of heart failure at the age of 80 in 1995.

More slices of history

"Elephant Man" presented: March 17, 1885

Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918

Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899

DNA discovered: Feb. 28, 1953

**Alka Seltzer is born: Feb. 21, 1931