History of polio and the invention of the vaccine

The story of the solution to a disease that tears families apart.

It had been 60 years since the discovery of X-rays, which shook the world more than any medical development had. Then a development took place in 1955 that would have the same type of impact, and it was the vaccine for polio. The news on TV, scared parents who were worried about their kids, and the fact that a well-liked leader (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States) had the same disease all made everyday life worse.

Polio disease spreads

This development brought the most precious gift to humanity by taking it away from its fears: the fear of catching paralytic poliomyelitis (which is more commonly known as polio) that arises every summer. In the United States, there were 25,000 cases of poliomyelitis per year, and the disease had a deep-rooted history that goes back to the Ancient Egyptians.

However, the outbreaks in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s were gradually causing more and more deaths. Many children and young people died due to illness, and those who remained crippled or paralyzed lived the rest of their lives connected to a mechanical respirator called “Iron Lung,” which looked like a gigantic tank. Experts predicted that outbreaks would worsen in the 1950s. The 1952 epidemic was the most terrifying epidemic recorded. Approximately 58,000 people were infected, and 3,000 were dead. In addition to this tragedy, expressed in thousands, the anxiety and fear felt in the summer were very wearying. Every person who had witnessed that period could not forget the happenings.

The invention of the polio vaccine

Dr. Jonas Salk invented the first solution to the polio vaccine.
Dr. Jonas Salk invented the first solution to the polio vaccine.

In early 1955, the public’s primary concern was the minor successes achieved with the vaccine being developed against the poliovirus. Later, Dr. Thomas Francis of the University of Michigan (who bears his father’s name) said in a press conference on April 12 that approximately one million people, 440,000 of whom are children, were vaccinated with Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine, which “kills the poliovirus.” This news echoed all over the world, showing the joy and relaxation seen in people’s faces. President Dwight Eisenhower praised Dr. Salk as a “benefactor of mankind”. American Medical Association President Dwight H. Murray heralded this development as “one of the greatest events in the history of medicine.”

The development of the virus preparation methods in laboratories with animal tissue culture techniques and the use of all three types of poliovirus to make an effective vaccine are the two most important factors behind the invention of the polio vaccine. Dr. John Enders of Harvard University was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the tissue culture method. Viruses in the Salk vaccine were first replicated in monkey kidney cells and then inactivated with formaldehyde solution. Salk became a national hero after his vaccine was declared safe, potent, and effective. In public opinion polls, he became one of the people who went down in history and got votes close to Churchill and Gandhi.

Colleagues ignore Salk


Salk was engaged with philosophy in the following years, and he believed that it is the power of development that directs his work, “Development is not only an effective process that I live in any moment but also a phenomenon that I can direct and shape with the choices I make. I always feel the next developmental stage in myself. “This is not something everyone can do, only some of us can do that.” But unlike the public, who embraced him, he was deeply hurt by his colleagues’ ignoring his work and not showing the necessary respect.

Al Rosenfeld, senior editor of Life magazine and also a close friend of Salk, stated that “it is very tragicomic for a man who is so exalted in the eyes of the public to win the praise of only a few colleagues for his work.” Despite his achievements, he was not deemed worthy of the Nobel Prize or accepted as a member of the American Academy of Sciences.

The disappointment of his assistant

Dr. Julius Youngner
Dr. Julius Youngner

Dr. Julius S. Youngner’s thoughts on Salk, who was Salk’s number one assistant in the team working on the polio vaccine:

“At first, I saw Salk as a father, but as time went on, this idea changed; he turned into a horrible man in my eyes. (…) He took all the money paid for the vaccine we developed, and he was responsible for all administrative affairs. He was doing everything. There were too many politicians involved in our business. One day I saw him answering press members’ questions. He sounded as if he had done everything alone. Everyone wants to be praised for what they do. Unfortunately, he escaped from us and deprived us of these compliments. It took me a long time to understand this. “I do not think that someone I admire and trust so much has done such a thing to me and my colleagues.”

Salk responded to such criticism about putting himself forward and said, “Perhaps a more conscious attempt might have been made and perhaps should have been made to list the names of each individual more prominently rather than, as was implied, that the satisfaction came from the work itself.”

Although some of his teammates criticized him for collecting all the applause, he was also subjected to tougher and more serious criticism because of his behavior and work. Many of these criticisms were made by Dr. Salk’s competitor, Albert Sabin, about his (weakened) polio vaccine.

The perfect vaccine for polio

The iron lung or tank ventilators were the only way to keep polio patients alive in the 1940s and 50s.
The iron lung or tank ventilators were the only way to keep polio patients alive in the 1940s and 50s.

Albert Sabin (1907-1993) was a genius virologist who made important contributions to the scientific world about how the poliovirus was transmitted to humans before World War II. It was he who found that the poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, passes through the digestive system, then settles in the nerves and devastates them. During the war, he developed effective methods for combating viral diseases that weakened army troops. Because of these things, in 1951 he was invited to join the American Academy of Sciences.

After the war, he returned to his poliovirus studies and began working on live vaccines (live polio vaccine), which included three pathogenic, highly weakened, harmless polioviruses. According to Sabin, this vaccine that uses the weakened form of the live virus has many advantages over the vaccines with dead viruses. Firstly, it could be given orally in a sugar cube without any injections; unlike repeated injections of other vaccines, a single oral dose of live vaccine would provide lifelong immunity; and like the real poliovirus, the virus that entered the body from a live vaccine could be excreted through feces.

The vaccine is distributed around the world

Salk had launched a campaign against Sabin’s vaccine. However, Sabin was right in all respects in presenting this vaccine to the public. Still, in 1958-59, he was sent to the Soviet Union to test his vaccine. The Salk vaccine significantly reduced polio cases between 1955 and 1962. But when the Sabin vaccine was tested on 180,000 children in Cincinnati in 1960, it yielded spectacular results and was later licensed by the American Public Health Association in 1962. Since then, the vaccine has been used to protect against polio in the United States and many other countries.

By Bertie Atkinson

As a history and science writer for Malevus, Bertie Atkinson writes about a wide range of subjects, including ancient civilizations and world wars. During his leisure time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.