Medicine and Disease

Jonas Salk

What is Jonas Salk known for?

American physician Jonas Edward Salk (1914–1995) is familiar to many as the inventor of the polio vaccine. In 1952 more than 21,000 cases of paralytic polio—the most severe form of polio—were reported in the United States. An acute viral infection, poliomyelitis (also called polio or infantile paralysis) invades the central nervous system; it is found worldwide and mainly in children.

In 1953, after years of research that included sorting through all the studies done on immunology since the mid-1800s, Salk announced the formulation of a vaccine, which contained all three types of polio known at the time. Salk tested it on himself first, and then on his wife and three children. Experiencing no side effects and finding the vaccine to be effective, it was then tested on 1.8 million schoolchildren, in a program sponsored by the March of Dimes (then called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis). In April 1955 the vaccine was pronounced safe and effective. Salk was duly honored, including with a congressional gold medal and a citation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969). Four years later, American physician Albert B. Sabin (1906–1993) developed an effective polio vaccine that could be taken orally (versus via injection)—it is the sugar cube so well known to people around the world. That vaccine contains live viruses (Salk’s was a killed-virus vaccine). The two vaccines virtually eradicated polio from developed nations.

American physician Jonas Salk inoculates a schoolboy during the polio vaccine field trials of 1954.

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