Sixty years ago today, April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis of the University of Michigan made the announcement that a polio vaccine had been created. The nation immediately celebrated the life-changing news.
If it is difficult now to understand why that was so momentous, credit the vaccine announced that day, and another one revealed soon after. In the United States, polio killed or paralyzed thousands of children every summer. In 1952, the worst year on record, it attacked 58,000 American kids, closing pools and movie theaters, turning streets into ghost towns as families fled crowded cities for sparsely settled summer colonies where they imagined they would be more safe. Around the world, hundreds of thousands more every year were mowed down by it; in societies with few resources to treat the illness or support the disability that followed, they faced a lifetime of mistreatment and poverty.
Scientists had been working on the problem of polio for years, and while millions of vaccinations ended the terror of the disease in the U.S., it took decades to do so. Polio still exists in some parts of the world, and the battle to eradicate it continues. Mary McKenna of the science blog Germination talked to one of the pioneering “polio warriors,” Dr. John Sever. Sever knew both Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, the inventors of two polio vaccines, and was the founder of Rotary International’s campaign against polio.
John Sever: I was working on a PhD in microbiology and an MD at Northwestern Medical School in the 1950s, so I was aware, of course, of polio. My father had been a practicing physician in the Chicago area, and I had a cousin who had polio paralysis of her legs, so it was very much a personal experience as well as professional. I remember that parents with newborns could buy “polio insurance” against the possibility their child would develop polio, so they could pay for the cost of care. It was on everyone’s mind, that children would be paralyzed and have to be in “iron lungs,” or die.
In the interview, he tells what those early days of polio vaccination were like and how it grew from an emergency measure to a global eradication project. Read the story of the polio breakthrough, and then take a minute to be thankful for the miracle of modern science.
(Image credit: CDC)