Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Sixty-five years ago, Dr. Jonas Salk saved countless lives around the world with the development of an effective vaccine for polio.

Dr. Jonas Salk
Dr. Jonas Salk (center) and his team of researchers saved countless lives around the world with the development of an effective vaccine for polio. (Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives.)

Since the turn of the 20th century, the polio virus baffled scientists, leaving hundreds of thousands of children crippled each year, with no reliable prevention and no cure.

After graduating from New York University’s medical school, Dr. Salk did post-doctoral work at a University of Michigan laboratory researching an influenza vaccine. But by 1947, Salk looked for greater independence and established his own lab at the University of Pittsburgh’s Virus Research Laboratory.

For seven years, Salk’s staff at the Virus Research Laboratory worked to develop an effective vaccine against the polio virus. Salk tested the vaccine locally at the Watson Home for Crippled Children in Sewickley and on several thousand Pittsburgh Public School students. Salk was so confident in the vaccine that he tested it on himself, co-workers, and even his own family.

A glass vial of the polio vaccine is in the collections of the Heinz History Center. (Gift of Jeanne Miller Dodson.)
A glass vial of the polio vaccine is in the collections of the Heinz History Center. (Gift of Jeanne Miller Dodson.)

Dr. Thomas Francis, Salk’s mentor and colleague at the University of Michigan, oversaw a national field trial involving nearly two million children to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine.

It took a year to coordinate and evaluate the results of the study, but on April 12, 1955, the world rejoiced when Francis’ report declared the new polio vaccine “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk was hailed as a miracle worker worldwide – Newsweek called him, “one of the greatest Americans.” Salk further endeared himself to the public by refusing to patent the vaccine and personally profit from sales.

The cardboard vial box bears Dr. Jonas Salk’s signature in blue ink. (Gift of Jeanne Miller Dodson.)
The cardboard vial box bears Dr. Jonas Salk’s signature in blue ink. (Gift of Jeanne Miller Dodson.)

Visitors to the Heinz History Center can see an original vial of Salk’s groundbreaking polio vaccine in the long-term exhibition, Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation.


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