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Before the mid-1950s, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world. Caused by a virus, it created annual epidemics. The disease hit children the hardest. Once contracted, the virus replicates rapidly and invades the nervous system of the victim. People infected are generally contagious for six weeks, even if they show no symptoms.
The disease struck indiscriminately. Even U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was affected, losing the use of his legs after a diagnosis at the age of 39. In 1938, he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, to fund research into a cure. Roosevelt also founded the March of Dimes, a massive public fundraising effort to aid the afflicted and find a cure or vaccine.
In 1952, there were almost 58,000 polio cases in the United States, leaving over 3,000 people dead and over 21,000 with varying degrees of paralysis. The most severe phase of the disease paralyzed the diaphragm and muscles of the chest, forcing victims to be placed in an iron lung in order to breathe. This imprisonment could last for up to a week, or even for years.
With major outbreaks occurring in the U.S. and Europe, the race was on to find a vaccine to prevent the virus from infecting more of the population.
Sept. 10, 1952
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Dr. Jonas Salk, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was appointed by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine to tackle polio in 1947. For the next seven years, he worked 16-hour days, seven days a week.
In 1953, Salk's wife and three sons volunteered to be injected with a test vaccine based on an inactivated or “killed” polio virus. After preliminary tests a mass trial began. The head of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis strongly backed Salk, paving the way for the final, nationwide trial to be conducted. It involved vast numbers of health professionals and over 1.8 million schoolchildren.
The vaccine was announced to be "safe and effective" on April 12, 1955, the ten-year anniversary of Roosevelt's death.
The success of the trial was widely reported, leading to spontaneous celebrations across the country. Salk refused a ticker tape parade and did not patent his discovery. He understood the need for the vaccine to be distributed widely to begin the process of eradicating the disease, and made his knowledge available to many countries. If the majority of people were vaccinated, any that slipped through the cracks would be protected by herd immunity. Today polio has almost been eradicated.
March 26, 1953
The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?
DR. JONAS SALK, ON THE QUESTION OF WHO OWNS THE PATENT TO THE VACCINE, APRIL 12, 1955
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April 29, 1954
Jan. 31, 1956
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He felt that he couldn't ask other parents to let him give this vaccine to their children if he wasn't willing to first try it on his own.
DARRELL SALK, SON OF DR. JONAS SALK
IMAGE: MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
April 8, 1955
April 9, 1955
April 12, 1955