Hero Saves 1000’s of Children
March 26, 1953: Salk Announces Polio Vaccine
On March 26, 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announces on a national radio show that he has successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. In 1952–an epidemic year for polio–there were 58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease. For promising eventually to eradicate “infant paralysis” because it mainly affects children, Dr. Salk was celebrated as the great doctor-benefactor of his time.
The Salk vaccine changed medical history, preventing many thousands of cases of crippling illness and saving thousands of lives. In the United States, the vaccine soon ended the yearly threat of epidemics and the toll of paralysis and death.
In 1969 not a single death from polio was reported in the nation, the first such year on record, and now the disease is on the verge of being eradicated worldwide.
Polio epidemics were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century. In the first decades of the 20th century, treatments were limited to quarantines and the infamous “iron lung,” a metal coffin-like contraption that aided respiration. Although children, and especially infants, were among the worst affected, adults were also often afflicted, including future president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In the epidemic of 1952, the worst on record, nearly 58,000 cases of polio were reported in the United States; more than 3,000 died of the disease.
Salk, born in New York City in 1914, first conducted research on viruses in the 1930s when he was a medical student at New York University, and during World War II helped develop flu vaccines. In 1947, he became head of a research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh and in 1948 was awarded a grant to study the polio virus and develop a possible vaccine. By 1950, he had an early version of his polio vaccine.
Salk conducted the first human trials on former polio patients and on himself and his family, and by 1953 was ready to announce his findings. This occurred on the CBS national radio network on the evening of March 25 and two days later in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Salk became an immediate celebrity.
Among other honors, Jonas Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. He died in La Jolla, California, in 1995. In 1970 he married the French painter and former mistress of Picasso, Francoise Gilot, an event that created a tabloid sensation. Her influence strengthened his interest in and knowledge of the world of art.
Dr. Salk’s scientific publications numbered more than 100. His books included “Man Unfolding” in 1972 and “The Survival of the Wisest” in 1973.
The Man Who Saved the Children