Category Archives: Medicine

March 26th – Jonas Salk announces his polio vaccine

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

Jonas Salk in his laboratory, inoculating a patient against polio.

On this day in 1953, Jonas Salk announced to the world that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio. A highly infectious disease, especially to children, the polio virus attacks the nervous system of victims, causing various degrees of paralysis. Major polio epidemics started appearing in the late nineteenth century in both Europe and North America, and soon enough, became one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the twentieth century. By 1952, a year before Salk’s announcement, polio was killing the most children over any other communicable disease. Until Salk’s vaccine was released, there was no viable cure or vaccine to combat polio. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s well-known affliction with polio raised national consciousness of the disease, and the massive fundraising campaigns of the March of Dimes Foundation, the search for a vaccine for polio was underway.

Jonas Salk began his scientific work on viruses in the 1930s while a medical student at New York University (NYU). During the Second World War, Salk assisted in developing flu vaccines for overseas soldiers. By 1948, Salk’s experience as a virologist allowed him to receive a grant at the University of Pittsburgh to study the polio virus and come up with a potential vaccine to the virus. In 1950, Salk had come up with an early version of his polio vaccine, however was unable to come forward to the public about it without testing its efficacy. Consequently, Salk conducted human trials of his vaccine on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and found that the vaccine worked. On March 26th, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he found a vaccine to prevent polio and would be holding field trials of the vaccine across America.

Starting in 1954, clinical field trials of the vaccine started throughout America, with an estimated two million American school children involved. Interestingly, a 1954 Gallup Poll showed that more Americans knew about these field trials than they knew the first name of the current President of the United States (that is Dwight, mind you). In 1955, Salk concluded that the vaccine was safe and effective, and a nationwide inoculation campaign was initiated. Similar inoculation campaigns were started throughout the world, drastically reducing the number of polio cases worldwide. Building on Salk’s work and success, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine to polio, greatly enhancing the ease of distribution of the vaccine. In honour of his work on the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, the highest civilian award in the United States. Salk died in La Jolla, California in 1995. Thanks to Salk and his vaccine, polio was almost globally eradicated in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the World Health Organization has reported that a few cases of polio have appeared in Syria in 2013, no doubt influenced by the inability to vaccinate children during Syrian Civil War.



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December 10th – The Nobel Prize is awarded for the first time

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement along with a monetary prize.

The medal awarded as part of the Nobel Prize. Nobel laureates also receive a diploma recognizing their achievement, along with a monetary prize.

On this day in 1901, the Nobel Prize was awarded for the first time in Stockholm, Sweden. Since its inception over 100 years ago, a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations have been awarded with the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize takes its name from Alfred Nobel, a prominent Swedish engineer and inventor. Besides the award that contains his name, Nobel is known as the inventor of dynamite, one of the greatest paradoxes in history. Upon his death in 1896, Nobel’s last will specified that his wealth be used to fund a series of prizes for those who contribute the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. Almost $190 million (current day monetary value) was used to establish these Nobel Prizes.

On December 10th, 1901, five years to the day after Alfred Nobel passed away, the first Nobel Prizes were handed out. Amongst the inaugural class of Nobel laureates were Wilhelm Röntgen (Physics) for his discovery of X-rays and Henry Dunant (Peace) for founding the International Red Cross. Here are some other fun facts:

  • The Nobel Prize for Economics was not one of the original five prizes, and was only awarded after 1969.
  • Only two individuals have multiple Nobel Prizes in different fields. These individuals are Marie Curie for Physics (1903, for her work in radiation phenomenon) and Chemistry (1911, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium) and Linus Pauling for Chemistry (1954, for his work on the nature of the chemical bond, more specifically orbital hybridization) and Peace (1962, for his work in campaigning against nuclear weapons testing).

A total of 23* Canadians have won a Nobel Prize. The asterisk indicates that some of these individuals were not born in Canada nor were Canadian citizens, but performed much of the work the Nobel Prize recognized while in Canada. Here are five notable Canadian individuals who have won:

  1. Ernest Rutherford for Chemistry (1908). You may know him as the scientist behind Bohr-Rutherford diagrams from high school chemistry class. Rutherford’s work on the half-life of radioactive substances while at McGill University in Montreal was the basis of his Nobel Prize (Rutherford was, in fact, a Kiwi, having been born in New Zealand).
  2. Frederick Banting for Physiology/Medicine (1923). Banting was rewarded the Nobel Prize for his work in (co)discovering insulin while a the University of Toronto. Prior to his arrival at Toronto, Banting was a faculty member at the University of Western Ontario, teaching orthopedics and anthropology.
  3. Lester B. Pearson for Peace (1957). The future prime minister of Canada won his Nobel Prize for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis through his work at the United Nations.
  4. John Polanyi for Chemistry (1986). This Hungarian-born scientist won his Nobel Prize for work on chemical kinetics. Today, Polanyi still teaches chemistry at the University of Toronto.
  5. Alice Munro for Literature (2013). This year’s Nobel laureate in literature received her prize for her work on the short story. Munro is a fellow alumnus of the University of Western Ontario (Go Mustangs!), having studied English and journalism during her time here as an undergraduate student.

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November 29th – First human surgery to correct blue baby syndrome

Vivien Thomas' autobiography, Partners of the Heart, tells the story of Blalock and Thomas' journey to treat blue baby syndrome

Vivien Thomas’ autobiography, Partners of the Heart, tells the story of Blalock and Thomas’ journey to treat blue baby syndrome

On this day in 1944 at the Johns Hopkins University, the first surgery was performed to treat patients with blue baby syndrome. Under the leadership of surgeon Alfred Blalock, his surgical assistant Vivien Thomas, and paediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig, the surgery paved the way to future innovations to combat this life-threatening condition.

Due to certain congenital defects of the heart (four anatomical defects in fact, cumulatively called the Tetralogy of Fallot), individuals with blue baby syndrome do not have enough blood that is being delivered from the heart to the lungs to become oxygenated. The defects in the heart disrupt the normal pathway blood undertakes, that is, moving through the heart, then to the lungs, back to the heart and out towards the body. As a consequence, an abnormal amount of deoxygenated blood enters the body’s circulation.

As its name suggests, blue baby syndrome occurs when newborn babies have inadequate oxygenation of blood by the lungs, resulting in a bluish hue to their skin. Contrary to medical diagrams that have used the colour red to symbolize oxygenated blood and the colour blue to symbolize deoxygenated blood, the deoxygenated blood in your body is not actually blue. Your blood is always red, brighter when oxygenated and dark red or maroon when deoxygenated. In fact, the only animals that do have blue blood are molluscs, crustaceans, and horseshoe crabs (the blue blood from the horseshoe crabs has some medical potential, see here: Rather, the blue appearance of deoxygenated blood (e.g. your veins) has something to do with the difference in absorption of blue light and red light through your skin and blood.

Now back to the history. Prior to his work on blue baby syndrome, Dr. Alfred Blalock was a prestigious physician at the Vanderbilt University Hospital. He had done a lot work on the physiological component of shock, and his work has been credited with saving the lives of thousands in WWII. It was while Blalock was at Vanderbilt that he became acquainted with Vivien Thomas. As an African-American lab assistant who did not receive any post-secondary education, Vivien Thomas would prove invaluable to Blalock’s work with blue baby syndrome, developing cardiac surgical techniques and proposing novel solutions to clinical problems.

After being introduced by Dr. Helen Taussig to the problem of blue baby syndrome, Blalock and Thomas tackled the problem based on previous work done on shock. After some experimentation, they proposed joining (anastomosing) the left subclavian artery (an artery just above the heart) to the pulmonary artery, the artery that directs blood from the heart to the lungs. This procedure, later known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, would allow for increased blood flow to the lungs, allowing for the oxygenation of the blood. On November 29th, 1944 this procedure was performed for the first time on a dying blue baby. As this was the first time the procedure was performed on a human, there was some concern of an adverse outcome for the patient. The baby survived the operation however, and over the next couple days after the surgery, became less blue and recovered from her illness. The procedure was a success.

The entire story of Blalock and Thomas’ work became popularized through an HBO TV movie called Something the Lord Made (2004), starring Alan Rickman as Dr. Alfred Blalock and Mos Def as Vivien Thomas ( Besides describing the process by which Blalock and Thomas came to develop their procedure, Something the Lord Made also delves into the racial aspect to this story. Taking place in the American South, the movie addresses the, at times, unequal relationship dynamic between Blalock and Thomas, such that Blalock took credit for many of the medical innovations that Thomas developed. The fact that Thomas’ name was not included in the name for this procedure (the Blalock-Taussig shunt), and that Vivien Thomas received his due credit for his pioneering work only until the 1970s, as seen at the end of Something the Lord Made, is a testament to the racial issues that underlined this story.

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