Polio vaccine celebrated: April 12, 1955

“The polio vaccine has been found to be safe, effective and potent.”

And with that announcement before a crowd of 500 people, including 150 reporters, and an audience of 54,000 doctors watching on closed-circuit televisions in movie theaters around the U.S., Dr. Thomas Francis sets off a wave of celebration all over the country.  Church bells ring, horns honk, people in factories and offices cheer or observe a moment of silence, and more than one company closes down for the day and lets people go home early.

The reason for such jubilation is that science had finally found a way to fight one of the more terrifying illnesses of the first half of the 20th century.  The polio outbreaks came in cycles, and after World War II in particular, it had become the most frightening public health threat in North America.  The virus seemed to be more virulent during summer and often struck children. Families had stopped going to swimming pools and parks and parents were skittish about exposing their children to any large groups of people.

President Franklin Roosevelt was polio’s most famous victim—he contracted it at age 39 while on vacation in Canada and became unable to walk--but many other celebrities fell ill with the disease during their childhood.  Some, such as violinst Itzhak Perlman, were permanently disabled; others, including director Francis Ford Coppola, nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, actress Mia Farrow and musicians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, were lucky enough to recover.

The real hero in the polio vaccine story is a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh named Jonas Salk. He had come to the university in 1947 to do research on vaccines for flu viruses, but then had been recruited by the director of research for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as the March of Dimes, to focus on polio.

With the Foundation’s financial backing, Salk had steadily refined a vaccine, using polio virus cells. The cells had been killed, but their presence in a body were enough to provoke an immune reaction and keep the disease from developing. To show his vaccine was safe, Salk had inoculated his wife and three sons.

That ultimately led to a massive public trial in which just under 450,000 children in 44 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and Finland received Salk’s vaccine and it was found to be 90 percent effective in preventing polio.

After Dr. Francis announces those results, Salk becomes world famous overnight. He is showered with awards, including the first Congressional Medal of Distinguished Civilian Service. The city of New York offers to hold a ticker tape parade in his honor, but he graciously declines.  By that summer, movie studios are fighting for the rights to make a film about him, although ultimately it’s never produced.

But Salk’s legacy is ensured when the cases of polio drop dramatically after his vaccine is distributed.  Three years before the success of the vaccine trials, in 1952, about 58,000 cases of polio had been reported in the U.S., with 3,145 people dying and more than 21,000 left with some degree of paralysis. In 1957, the number of polio cases plummets to fewer than 6,000.  By 1964, only 121 cases are reported nationwide.

More slices of history

First artificial heart: April 4, 1969
First batch of Coca-Cola: March 29, 1886
Elephant man case presented: March 17, 1885
Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918  
Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899 
Discovery of DNA: Feb. 28, 1953 
Alka-Seltzer born: Feb. 21, 1931 
First penicillin shot: Feb. 12, 1941 
Longest surgery: Feb. 4-8, 1951 
First Social Security check: Jan. 31, 1940 
First electric dental drill: Jan. 26, 1875