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On This Day: Polio Vaccination Introduced to Public

Written By Rachel Balik
Last updated: August 4, 2023

Though there is still no cure for Polio, on April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk announced he found a vaccine that could prevent children from contracting it.

On This Day- Polio Vaccination Introduced to Public

Salk Finds Polio Vaccine

Salk began studying viruses when he was in medical school. When he became the head of the virus research lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947, he was able to examine and sort the 125 strains of the Polio Virus into three categories. He set about developing a vaccine that would work against all three types. His next task was to create enough of the virus to run tests, which he was eventually able to do with help of some researchers from Harvard.

In 1953, Salk had found what he thought was a successful vaccine. He published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Soon, tests on children began. The vaccinations were a tremendous success, but one bad batch of the vaccine killed 11 people and gave 200 others polio. According to PBS, higher quality standards were implemented and people started getting vaccinations again. By 1955, it was announced that a vaccine had been found.

Background: Polio’s history

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, according to National Public Radio. 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 American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who helped to establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization that ultimately supported Salk’s work. The organization was founded in 1938, but the disease would continue to plague the country for years. In 1952, 57,628 people had polio. When scientists finally began testing the vaccine, the field trials were the largest in history, NPR says in a polio timeline.

Sources in This Story

Key Players: Dr. Jonas Salk

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, his biography from the Academy of Achievement says. He first studied the influenza virus as a medical student at New York University. A bit of an overachiever, he sped through his education and onto his next appointment. After graduation, he would continue his flu studies at the University of Michigan and had a great deal of success preventing epidemics. His task was to protect the U.S. Army, which desperately needed to avoid the flu while fighting 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, or Infantile Paralysis, as it was also called. 

Time magazine speculates people were afraid of polio because of disturbing pictures of paralyzed children and not because the epidemic was exceedingly large. There was so much fear surrounding the virus that whoever cured it was destined to become a national hero, the magazine says. Many researchers longed for the esteem that would come along with curing the virus. As a result, there was a great deal of competition between Salk and colleague Arthur Sabin. Almost a decade later, Sabin would develop an oral vaccine that became far more popular than the one introduced by Salk.

Salk got the credit, but was surprisingly denied accolades, including a Nobel Prize and National Academy of Sciences membership. Time notes that he may have been denied because he was quite disliked by his fellow scientists. Salk was very fast, and thus got the credit for finding the vaccine, but many others contributed to the quest. For example, without the help of Harvard researcher John Enders, Salk never would have been able to grow the virus in test tubes. Unfortunately, when Salk went on the radio to talk about the vaccine, he didn’t give credit to any of the numerous contributors. He became a hero to the public, but was somewhat shunned by the scientific community.

Still, he spent the rest of life doing valuable research in disease prevention, the City University of New York, his alma mater, reported on the 50th anniversary of the vaccine. 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.

Related Topic: Modern vaccination controversies

The polio vaccine succeeded in almost completely eradicating the virus from the United States. Other vaccines have proved to be similarly invaluable in preventing childhood sicknesses. However, some studies have suggested that vaccines are dangerous and may cause autism. A wave of parents decided to stop vaccinating babies, causing controversy in schools and playgroups.

Americans aren’t the only ones suspicious of polio vaccines. In March 2009, the Taliban prevented the United Nations from vaccinating 300,000 against polio in Pakistan. British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that extremists warned people over loud speakers that the vaccinations would cause infertility. They said the initiative was an American plot to reduce Muslim populations.

Reference: Polio

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

Charles Eames

Rachel has been with findingDulcinea since February of 2007. Before joining the team, Rachel was a copywriter at a financial services marketing firm. She has also worked in arts administration at New York's Roundabout Theatre Company and as a production assistant on off-Broadway shows. Rachel's eclectic post-college years also include a stint as a yoga studio assistant and a summer spent assistant-teaching philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. She has a B.A. in English and Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania with a minor in Theatre Arts. For more about Rachel read her blog, Wicked Witch Of The Web.

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