Polio has been around for thousands of years, but it became a more serious threat once cities began implementing better sanitation systems. The disease was devastating families across the country, with cyclical outbreaks that just seemed to keep getting worse. Many people would recover from polio with little to no lasting impact on their health. In some cases, however, the virus would infect nerve cells and cause paralysis and muscle wasting. Many afflicted with this type of paralytic polio never fully recovered and had to spend their lives in wheel chairs, iron lungs, or walking with braces on their legs.
In the midst of the panic of the polio outbreaks, many scientists were trying to find a vaccine to prevent this awful disease. In 1955, the world learned the name Jonas Salk.
Who was Jonas Salk?
Jonas Salk (October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He attended medical school at New York University, but he chose to pursue medical research, instead of becoming a doctor. During medical school, he was offered a position to study the influenza virus, and he continued studying the flu virus after he graduated. He wanted to see if he could manipulate the virus so that it was no longer infectious but could still provide immunity.
In 1947, he moved to Pittsburgh, where he was offered a position researching the polio virus. For eight years, he worked diligently to developed a "killed" virus that would provide immunity without infecting the person receiving the vaccine. Much of the work he had done on the influenza virus carried over to his work with the polio virus.
In 1948, J.F. Enders' team at Harvard announced that they could grow viruses in tissue samples, which allowed Salk to more easily complete his studies. In 1952, Salk successfully created a killed virus vaccine for the polio virus. The news wasn't released to the world until April 12,1955. They started passing out the vaccine, given by injection, that same year.
There were 28,985 cases of polio in 1955, and there were only 14,647 cases in 1956. The Salk vaccine, also called the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), is credited with the enormous decrease in cases. The vaccine contained three strains of the polio virus, and it provided at least partial immunity. Due to evidence that the IPV didn't fully immunize the patient, an attenuated (or weakened) vaccine was released in 1958 by Albert Sabin. This vaccine is given orally and is known as the oral polio vaccine (OPV). In 1987, a new, stronger version of IPV was released.
Today, these two vaccines are given to infants all over the world. They have virtually eradicated polio in many countries and have drastically decreased the number of polio cases in other countries. Billions of children are leading healthier lives, thanks to the man who developed the first vaccine for polio.
Academy of Achievement. "Jonas Salk, M.D." Feb. 20, 2005. https://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/sal0bio-1.
PBS. "A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries – Salk produces polio vaccine." 1998. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dm52sa.html.