PITTSBURGH — A group of children rolled up their sleeves for their place in history on Feb. 23, 1954, at a mass inoculation held at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh. The new polio vaccine they received was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.
Poliomyelitis was a highly contagious disease that terrorized communities with sudden outbreaks that would leave paralysis and death in its wake. It affected children most of all, leaving scores with lifelong disabilities.
The 137 students from Arsenal Elementary were the first of about 5,000 public school students in Pittsburgh to be inoculated in the first doses of the new vaccine, which would consist of three doses in total.
Dr. Salk performed every shot personally in the school’s gymnasium, a process that took two hours. The boys and girls, all under the age of 9, were in the first through third grades at the school. The children largely took their vaccines without drama, partly due the variety of distractions presented before them. Television and still cameras joined reporters, school officials and medical staff to document the makeshift clinic. Salk was smiling and frequently joking with the students to keep them at ease.
Among the first recipients was a girl who had already survived one type of polio. She walked into the gym wearing a brace on one leg, hoping the vaccine would give her immunity against the two other types of the virus. Students and parents who had already given consent for the injections did not know when, or if, they would be selected until the children were summoned from their classrooms.
Similar mass vaccinations were held at 18 other schools in the district, with Salk and his team circulating back through all of them two more times to administer the second and third doses and conduct tests to verify polio antibodies have been built up in the students’ bloodstreams.
The three injections were thought to provide about seven months’ worth of protection from the virus, but it was not known for sure at the time. None were given placeboes; all received the real vaccine. The tests were intended to discern what dosage provided the strongest and longest immunity and how often booster shots would be needed.
Research for the vaccine was funded by the March of Dimes (originally called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis), which had been founded with the help of President Franklin Roosevelt, who lost the use of his legs at the age of 39 during a 1921 outbreak.
In 1952 alone, there were 58,000 new cases of polio in the United States and more than 3,000 people died.
On March 26, 1953, Salk announced on a national radio show that his test of a vaccine was successful. Among those who were volunteered for the earliest tests were Salk’s own family. He injected himself, his wife and his three sons in his kitchen after boiling needles and syringes on his stovetop.
Salk had discovered that polio had as many as 125 strains from three main types. For a vaccine to be effective, all three had to be successfully treated. Bucking traditional thinking at the time, Salk’s vaccine used a killed-virus instead of a live one to trick the body’s immune system into manufacturing protective antibodies without risk of infection.
The clinical trials of the vaccine on 1.8 million schoolchildren, called “polio pioneers,” that had begun in Pittsburgh in 1954, were completed by April 12, 1955, when the vaccine was announced as safe and effective. A nationwide inoculation campaign was immediately launched, though it was briefly suspended after more than 200,000 people were injected with a bad batch of the vaccine from a California lab. Thousands of polio cases were reported, 200 children were paralyzed and 10 died. Standards for manufacturing the vaccine were tightened and the campaign resumed.
Salk never patented or profited from the vaccine. Instead, he believed that it belonged to the people, asking, “Could you patent the sun?” He pointed out that the research had been funded by millions of charitable donations raised by the March of Dimes, which in turn did not pursue a patent in part because of Salk’s reluctance to do so.
By 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine was licensed and soon became the world standard. It used a weakened form of the live virus in a liquid or sugar tablet that could be swallowed instead of injected and was significantly cheaper to produce, store and administer. Sabin had been a vocal critic of Salk’s methodology, calling him “a mere kitchen chemist” who was dangerous. Following Salk’s lead, Sabin also refused to patent or profit from his oral polio vaccine.
The March of Dimes funded an immunization campaign using both vaccines and eliminated polio from the United States by 1979.
For his contributions to medical science, Salk received many awards, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1955, which is currently on display at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.
According to the World Health Organization, polio has been largely eradicated worldwide thanks to the vaccines, and survives only in the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities.