Man 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 polio. Consider that in 1952 there were 58,000 new cases reported in the US, and that more than 3,000 had died from the disease, mostly kids.
Polio epidemics were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century and treatments were limited to quarantines and the infamous “iron lung,” a metal coffin-like contraption that aided respiration. Children, and especially infants, were among the worst affected, although adults were also often afflicted, including future president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The fear of contacting polio had been ever increasing since the early 1900’s. No one knew what to do or how to stop the epidemic. Parents lived in fear that their children would be infected. This was the situation when young Jonas Salk stepped into the fray.
With the hopes of the world upon him, Salk worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for years.¹ After the announcement in ’53 it wasn’t an easy go. The nation was skeptical and folks had been led on false hopes before. Medical egos were involved. At a conference in November of 1953 he announced that he had injected himself, his wife and his three sons among the first volunteers to be inoculated with the vaccine.
When the successful test results were finally released on April 12 of 1955, the nation erupted. The announcement was made at the University of Michigan. Press, radio and television people filled the room. 16 television and newsreel cameras stood on a long platform at the back; 54,000 physicians, sitting in movie theaters across the country, watched the broadcast on closed-circuit television. Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so that everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America.
Paul Offit writes about the event:
“The presentation was numbing, but the results were clear: the vaccine worked. Inside the auditorium Americans tearfully and joyfully embraced the results. Within minutes of Francis’s declaration that the vaccine was safe and effective, the news of the event was carried coast to coast by wire services, radio and television newscasts.”
By the time Thomas Francis (the monitor of the test results) stepped down from the podium, church bells were ringing across the country, factories were observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and parents and teachers were weeping. According to reporter Debbie Bookchin, “across the nation there were spontaneous celebrations… business came to a halt as the news spread. One shopkeeper painted a sign on his window: Thank you, Dr. Salk. ‘It was as if a war had ended’, one observer recalled.”
However, New York City could not get Salk to accept a ticker tape parade. Instead New York created eight “Jonas Salk Scholarships” for future medical students.
On a side note; research takes money and Americans took up the challenge as the March of Dimes was established. Radio networks offered free 30-second slots for promotion. After the first slew of promos asking for dimes, Americans sent in 2,680,000 letters within days. The March of Dimes received $67 million by 1955.
¹Denenberg, Dennis, and Roscoe, Lorraine. 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet Millbrook Press (2006)