Finding the Cure for Polio: The Work of Dr. Jonas Salk

Child receiving the oral dose of the poliomyelitis vaccine | Courtesy of Flickr

Poliomyelitis is a “highly contagious viral infection that can lead to paralysis, respiratory problems, and even death caused by the poliovirus.”1 The virus is highly contagious and specific to humans. The first outbreak of polio in the United States occurred in 1894 with more than 132 reported cases. The number of infected people throughout the United States increased rapidly after the first epidemic with thousands being affected every year after the first onset.2 Thousands of people in the United States were affected by the virus before Dr. Jonas Salk found the vaccine for Poliomyelitis.

Dr. Jonas Salk was born on October 28, 1914, just as World War I was beginning, and four years before the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. In 1916 influenza and polio began killing children and the elderly in large numbers.3  Salk’s brilliance could be seen at a young age. When he began school at the age of five, he was very eager to learn, and was able to skip ahead a few grades. Salk described his early years as “the life of an only child, having full attention of a doting, controlling mother who wanted to be sure that her child is protected and will grow up to be a worthwhile person.”4 Salk’s mother could not have done a better job. Dr. Jonas Salk began conducting research on viruses in the 1930s as a student at New York University. After graduating from New York University, Salk attended the University of Michigan. At the University of Michigan, Dr. Salk began working on a flu vaccine, for which he is now known as one of the key contributors to the development of the flu vaccine during World War II. By the 1950s, he was awarded a grant to “study the polio virus and develop a possible vaccine.”5 Dr. Salk had devised a version of the polio vaccine immediately after obtaining the grant. He began clinical trials in which he “was to kill several strains of the virus and then inject the benign viruses into a healthy person’s bloodstream.” 6 This was attempted at first by various other scientists before it was perfected by Dr. Salk. This was successful because the person’s immune system in which it was injected would soon begin to form antibodies towards the virus, which would help in resistance with future exposure to polio.

Before the vaccine was developed and made widely available to the public, many researchers developed alternative ways to help control the symptoms of polio. Sister Kenny, an Australian nurse, came to the United States to promote a treatment she had developed specifically for polio. This treatment consisted of the use of warm compresses to relax contracting muscles. Another invention was that of the “iron lung,” which was developed to aid in respiration. Some of the main symptoms of polio are swallowing and respiratory difficulties, so the “iron lung” was developed to help alleviate some of the respiratory problems people with polio were experiencing.7

Dr. Salk drawing blood from a child during the clinical trails, 1954 | Courtesy of Smithsonian Archives

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk was able to announce his findings on the polio vaccine. The news was quickly published in articles and newspapers and announced on the radio. In 1954, clinical trials began testing on approximately two million American schoolchildren. It was not until April of 1955 that it was announced that the vaccine was indeed effective and could be manufactured. It took about two years for the vaccine to become widely available throughout the United States. Within the first year that the polio vaccine became available the number of cases per year decreased dramatically. Polio, along with many other viral diseases, has no cure. The vaccine that was manufactured was intended to prevent others from contracting the virus. With polio, prevention is the key. Albert Sabin, a Polish-American researcher, was able to facilitate the distribution of the vaccine by developing an oral vaccine.8

For the current year 2016, only about seventy cases of poliomyelitis have been reported, and only two countries remain polio-endemic.9 About 90-95% of the reported cases are asymptomatic, meaning no symptoms are present. This has been made possible because of Dr. Salk and all of the researchers that put their time and effort into discovering the vaccine to prevent poliomyelitis.

  1. Bernard Seytre and Mary M. Shaffer, “Coming Along at the Right Time: Jonas Salk,” in The Death of a Disease : A History of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 44.
  2. Scott S. Smith, “Jonas Salk Stood Tall With His Polio Vaccine Rescue: The Chemist Came through in Paralysis Battle,” Investor’s Business Daily, July 17, 2015.
  3.  Scott S Smith, “Jonas Salk Stood Tall With His Polio Vaccine Rescue: The Chemist Came through in Paralysis Battle,” Investor’s Business Daily, July 17, 2015.
  4. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, Jonas Salk: A Life, 1st edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 36.
  5. Scott S. Smith, “Jonas Salk Stood Tall With His Polio Vaccine Rescue: The Chemist Came through in Paralysis Battle,” Investor’s Business Daily, July 17, 2015.
  6. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Jonas Salk,” by Elof Axel Carlson.
  7. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, Jonas Salk: A Life, 1st edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 45.
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2015, s.v. “Jonas Salk,” by Elof Axel Carlson.
  9. Seytre and Shaffer, “Coming Along at the Right Time: Jonas Salk,” in The Death of a Disease : A History of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis, 44.
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61 Comments

  • Dr. Salk’s work is so important and essential. His work has saved the lives of many and prevented outbreaks. It saddens me that not everyone sees his work as crucial and relevant, most especially around this time in 2019 because now there’s people who refuse to vaccinate their kids! So many people don’t understand how important vaccines are, especially for something like polio.

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