April 12, 1955. On this date, Doctor Jonas Salk announced that he had developed a safe vaccine designed to eradicate polio. In the vaccine’s subsequent deployment, the incidence of polio dramatically decreased. With improvements in the vaccine, it was reported recently that even in close-quartered places like India, polio has been totally eradicated.
Polio is a virus that assaults the human body by attacking the digestive system, the central nervous system, and nerve cells. For those infected with its vicious pathogens, polio’s effects can result in any number health problems which may include difficulty in breathing, muscle weakness and stiffness, paralysis, and death. An infected person often manufactures it through normal bodily functions, and it is transferred by carriers such as food, water, saliva, and unclean hands. It does not discriminate among rich and poor, young and old, race or religion, the famous or the unknown. The list of notables who contracted polio, among many, include FDR, Itzhak Perlman, Alan Alda, Lionel Barrymore, and even Jack Nicklaus.
It was a disease that has been present for at least a millennium. However, as industrial revolutions caused rural populations to crowd into cities — where sanitation facilities were either poor or non-existent — things got much worse. Sporadic epidemics in the later part of the 19th century developed into regular events in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the summer. It was a huge problem.
Salk’s vaccine had to be safe, but potent. The side effects of many previous attempts at a vaccine were too dangerous — causing severe sickness and sometimes death. Salk devoted eight years of his life to develop his own version of a vaccine. It was safe. And it worked. He reported that after three doses of his vaccine, 99% of those treated became immune. There have been several significant improvements to the Salk vaccine since then, but Salk’s vaccine was a breakthrough. In 2014, the World Health Organization has identified just three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria — where polio remains a problem. This is largely due, however, to attitudes against receiving the vaccine.
Despite his immense contribution to humankind, Salk never got rich over it. In fact, when asked about a patent to his vaccine in a televised interview, Salk said, “[t]here is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
A hospital ward with an iron lung machine that services many children.
Dr. Salk in his laboratory in 1954.
Salk’s announcement dominated the newspaper headlines. This headline from the Chicago Daily News on April 13, 1955 was typical.