On this day in 1995, medical pioneer Jonas Salk died after dedicating much of his life to the development of a vaccine to prevent polio, a muscle-wasting disease that leads ultimately to paralysis. It was the most dreaded disease of the mid-20th century.
Although polio, which involves a virus that attacks “nerve cells in the spinal cord,” was certainly not the deadliest disease of that era, it was considered the most frightening as it struck suddenly and the mode of transmission was yet unknown at that time which is often the most terrifying element to a seemingly “new” epidemic. In fact, in the 1940’s and 50’s, polio was feared almost as much as the possibility of a nuclear attack.
As is often the case, the plight caught the world’s attention when then-Democratic vice presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted the disease while summering at his home on Campobello Island. He was thirty-nine at the time. His battle with the ailment led to the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) in 1938 after he was sworn in as President of the United States. The organization raised most of the money that funded Salk’s polio trials. Popular images of that time such as the “two Mickeys,” (Rooney and Mouse, of course) were used as “poster children” to raise tens of millions of dollars to aid Salk in his research and development.
Historically, there were several “firsts” involved in Salk’s creation of an effective polio vaccine. He was the first to use a deadened virus to fool the body’s immune system into attacking what it “thinks” is a live one, thus producing an immune response that should be able to fend off the live virus if it should attempt to infect the host. What has been called the largest “public health experiment in U.S. History,” was also the first double-blind experiment wherein both the receiver of the vaccine as well as the person administering it were kept unaware as to whether or not the injection was the vaccine or simply as placebo.
Prior to large-scale trials, Salk used monkeys to test his vaccine and soon after even injected his wife, three children and himself after “sterilizing” the needles with ordinary cooking implements in their kitchen.
Finally, on March 26, 1953, the polio vaccine was deemed successful and a proclamation was made by radio broadcast, much to the relief of an anxious and fearful public.
The modest and dedicated Salk rejected the notion of patenting the vaccine as he firmly believed that it belonged to the “people” as they had pledged the millions in cost to fund its development and subsequent trials.
Thanks to this learned pioneer in the medical world, the crippling disease of polio is now an extremely rare occurrence worldwide.