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.