On This Day

jonas salk, jonas salk polio, salk polio vaccine
Associated Press
Jonas Salk holds two bottles of a culture
used to grow the polio vaccines, 1955.

On This Day: Polio Vaccine Declared Safe

April 12, 2011 05:00 AM
by Rachel Balik
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine for polio was declared “safe, effective and potent.”

Salk Develops Polio Vaccine

Virologist Jonas Salk became the head of the virus research lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. His lab received funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to develop a vaccine for poliomyelitis, a virus that affected tens of thousands of Americans a year.

While most polio researchers tried to develop a live-virus vaccine, Salk’s team focused on developing a killed-virus vaccine, which had been proven effective by Johns Hopkins researcher Isabel Morgan in 1948. Salk’s research was also aided by Dr. John Ender and his team of Harvard researchers, who in 1949 discovered that the virus could be grown on scraps of tissue cultures, allowing for greater production of the virus for testing.

Salk’s team sorted the more than 100 strains of the polio virus into three categories and set about developing a vaccine that would work against all three types. In 1952, he began testing his vaccine on children who had the virus and on himself and his family.

After the trials were successful, Salk published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association and announced on a national radio show that he had developed an effective vaccine.

Scientists conducted clinical trials on nearly 2 million children, the largest trials ever conducted. Though one bad batch of the vaccine killed 11 people and gave 200 others polio, the vaccine was found to be 90 percent effective. On April 12, 1955, after a year of analyzing the test results, Dr. Thomas Francis of the University of Michigan announced that the vaccine was “safe, effective and potent.”

Background: History of Polio

Polio is a disease that has been around “since ancient times,” according to PBS. But the modern battle with it began in the early 1800s, when it began afflicting children throughout the world.

It didn’t appear in the United States until an 1894 epidemic in Vermont. In 1908, a doctor discovered that polio was caused by a virus, but not much else was known. Eight years later, the first truly devastating virus in the United States left 27,000 paralyzed and 6,000 dead.

One of polio’s most famous victims was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who helped to establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis along with New York lawyer Basil O’Connor. The NFIP, known today as the March of Dimes, raised money through small donations from everyday Americans, and funded Salk’s work.

Biography: Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk was born in New York City in 1914, just a few years after polio first became a problem for children in the United States. As the first member of his family to go to college, he planned to study law, but became intrigued by medicine.

He first studied the influenza virus as a medical student at New York University. After graduation, he continued his flu studies at the University of Michigan and had a great deal of success preventing epidemics, developing an influenza vaccine for the U.S. Army during World War II.

He then earned an appointment at the University of Pittsburgh, where a connection with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis inspired him to start developing a polio vaccine. Salk got his appointment based on his flu research, but other scientists had been working hard on the polio virus for some time and were resentful about his appointment.

Many researchers were anxious to be the one to cure polio. There was so much fear surrounding the virus that whoever cured it was destined to become a national hero. As a result, there was a great deal of competition between Salk and other researchers such as Albert Sabin.

Salk was celebrated by the public when his vaccine was introduced, but he became somewhat shunned by the scientific community after didn’t give credit to the numerous contributors to the development of the vaccine. He was denied accolades such as the Nobel Prize and National Academy of Sciences membership.

Still, he spent the rest of life doing valuable research in disease prevention. He helped to found the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in La Jolla, Calif., and Salk scholarships are available to CUNY medical students to this day.

Reference: Polio

Information about polio, including its causes and symptoms is available from the Mayo Clinic.

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