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Jonas Salk Announces Polio Vaccine on Radio, 1953

On This Day in Jewish History: March 26, 1953

On this day in 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on the CBS Radio Network that he had successfully tested a vaccine for polio. The discovery would change the course of medical history in the United States and save many lives. In the previous year alone, new cases of polio afflicted 58,000 Americans with more than 3000 people dying from it. But the disease had afflicted people throughout history and been the source of recurrent epidemics. Highly transmittable, and responsible for varying degrees of paralysis, polio had been treated through quarantine and a respiratory-assistance machine known as an “iron lung.” While the most high-profile victim of polio was, of course, Franklin Roosevelt, who contracted the disease at the age of 39 in 1921, Americans were all too familiar with its impact and threat. Salk’s research on viruses began during the thirties while he was still a medical student at NYU. Choosing research over clinical practice, his work continued during WWII and then, in 1947, he took the helm of his own research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Salk’s method, now the stuff of medical history, was to inject dead strains of the virus into the body to produce an immune response through the creation of antibodies. By 1953, Salk was ready to test his vaccine and, so confident was he about its safety, that he administered it to his own family. Shortly after the radio announcement, Salk published his study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the results of full scale clinical trials were not clear until 1955 when, after testing on over two million children, Salk’s vaccine was officially declared safe and effective. A nationwide program to inoculate Americans soon began. While the patent on the vaccine might have been worth billions of dollars, no patent was ever taken. Salk became an overnight celebrity and hero to millions but he fought throughout the rest of his life to maintain his privacy and continue his research. Salk’s vaccine had to be administered through an injection. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral polio vaccine that greatly accelerated the war against the disease. Throughout the 60s, millions lined up at schools and community centers to take the oral vaccine. Still, the name Salk is the one most frequently associated with the successful conquering of polio. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995 at the age of 80.

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