On This Day

On this day in 1954, the first round of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine field trials, involving 1.8 million children, begin first at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia. Children in the United States, Canada and Finland participated in the trials, which used for the first time the now-standard double-blind method, whereby neither the patient nor attending doctor knew if the inoculation was the vaccine or a placebo.

The need for a vaccine could not have been more acute; in the first half of the 20th century, Americans lived in fear of the incurable paralytic poliomyelitis (polio) disease, which they barely understood and knew not how to contain. It was only known that the disease led to some kind of infection in the central nervous system that crippled so many children, and even a president (Franklin D. Roosevelt). By the early 1950’s, 25,000 to 50,000 people were becoming infected each year, and 3,000 died from polio in 1952.

The terror that followed a neighborhood outbreak of polio resonated. Under the mistaken belief that poor sanitary conditions during the “polio season” of summer increased exposure to the virus, people resorted to measures that had been used to combat the spread of influenza or the plague. Areas were quarantined, schools and movie theaters were closed, windows were sealed shut in the heat of summer, public swimming pools were abandoned, and draft inductions were suspended.

Jonas Edward Salk was born in 1914, the son of Ashkenazi Jewish Russian parents who had immigrated to East Harlem. A gifted student, Salk enrolled at the New York University School of Medicine, but showed little interest in practicing. He was inspired by the intellectual challenges of medical research, particularly his study of the influenza epidemic that claimed the lives of millions after World War I. With his mentor, Thomas Francis Jr., he worked to develop an influenza vaccine.

Turning to the dreaded polio, Salk cultivated the viruses on cultures of monkey kidney cells, killed the viruses with formaldehyde, then injected the killed virus into monkeys. The experiments worked. The next step was to test the vaccine on humans, but many wondered who would volunteer to be injected with the polio virus, killed or not. Salk provided the answer: He injected himself and his wife and children—the first humans to be inoculated.

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, Dr. Albert Sabin and his research associates working on an alternative vaccine swallowed live avirulent viruses and continued to perform trials on prisoners at a federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, where volunteer inmates were paid $25 and promised “some days off” their sentences. All thirty prisoners developed antibodies to the virus strains with none taking ill, and the trials were deemed successful. Sabin wanted to do even larger studies, but the United States would not permit it, so he tested his vaccine in Russia, East Germany and some smaller Soviet Bloc countries.

On April 12, 1955, researchers announced the vaccine was safe and effective and it quickly became a standard part of childhood immunizations in America. In the ensuing decades, polio vaccines would all but wipe out the highly contagious disease in the Western Hemisphere.

Responding to Ed Murrow’s question as to how or when Salk would monetize his discovery, Salk stated “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

What say you, the people?