Polio Vaccine and Jonas Salk

We’ve read about some dramatic, crazy and bizarre self-experiments this month in my series DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENT. Among all these people, there are those who take it upon themselves to solve the major problems in our world. They don’t want recognition, nor do they want the money. All they want is a cure!

Jonas Edward Salk was born on 28thOctober 1914 in New York, USA. He was a medical researcher and a virologist. As a child, Salk did not show any interest in medicine or science for that matter. During an interview with the Academy of Achievement  Salk said “As a child I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that.

Just like typical Indian parents, his mother convinced him to become a doctor.  He put aside aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and instead concentrated on classes necessary for admission to medical school.

He is the man behind the discovery of the first polio vaccine. Before the mid-1950s, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world. It was caused by a virus which created annual epidemics. Children were the one who were the most affected.The disease struck indiscriminately. Even U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the use of his legs when he was diagnosed to have polio at the age of 39.

In 1947, Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The following year he undertook a project to study the different types of polio viruses.

He along with his team, devoted the next 7 years to the research of the polio vaccine. Salk worked 16 hours a day, every day. The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine was enormous. O’Neill described it as, “the most elaborate program of its kind in history, involving 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers.” Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial. Salk wasn’t the only one testing the polio vaccine. A number of researchers were doing the same. In fact another researcher Albert Sabin also had developed a ‘live’ polio vaccine at the same time which was much more dangerous than Salk’s killed vaccine.

Not only others, Salk’s own family members were experimented upon. In 1953 along with himself, Salk’s wife and three sons volunteered to be injected with a test vaccine based on an inactivated or “killed” polio virus. Using formaldehyde, he killed the polio virus but kept it intact enough to trigger the body’s response. The idea behind this was to test whether they would develop antibodies to the polio virus which if they did meant that the vaccine could fight against the disease. But since injecting the vaccine meant that Salk was actually injecting a them and also himself with the polio vaccine, there was a possibly of them developing polio or worse even death.  After the vaccination, their antibodies increased.

In 1953 Salk reported his findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association. A nationwide testing of the vaccine was launched in April 1954 with the mass inoculation of school children. The results were breath taking. There was almost an 80% prevention of polio after vaccination. Jonas Salk, the man who was supposed to become a lawyer was praised to the moon. But then when you are praised to the skies, you have to be brought down to the earth.  Suddenly, some 200 cases of the disease were caused by the vaccine and 11 people died (Now you know the risks which Salk’s family put themselves in at the time of the initial testing.  All testing was halted. People’s hopes were crushed. But then they realised that this was just an aberration. On investigating, they found that the disease causing vaccine came from one faulty batch from the same drug company.

Jonas Salk vaccinating a child with his polio vaccine.
Image courtesy: www.acurator.com

When news of the vaccine’s success was made public on April 12, 1955, Salk was hailed as a “miracle worker” and the day almost became a national holiday. Around the world, there was a mad rush as everyone wanted to be vaccinated with the miracle drug. Countries like Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium planned to begin polio immunization campaigns using Salk’s vaccine.

Jonas Salk was a selfless man. His sole purpose in life was to develop a safe and effective vaccine against polio. After discovering the vaccine, he could’ve easily patented it. It was calculated to be worth 7 billion dollars had Salk patented it. Instead when asked who owned the patent to it, he said “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

Jonas Salk died from heart failure at the age of 80 on June 23, 1995, in La Jolla and was buried at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego.



  • Polio is an infectious disease caused by the polio virus.
  • The first clinical description of polio was provided by Michael Underwood, a British physician in 1789.
  • The first outbreaks appeared in Europe in the early 1800s
  • It affects mainly children under 5 years of age.
  • It is a highly contagious disease.
  • People who don’t show any symptoms can still affect others
  • The virus affects the muscles that help us breathe and so can cause death by the paralysis of the breathing mechanism.
  • The virus is usually found in the body fluids of the people who are sick.
  • There is no cure for polio. Prevention is the best treatment.
  • There were only 74 polio infections worldwide in 2015

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018My theme for this month is DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED. You can read all other posts here



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