June 23

Jonas Salk. Photo Credit: SAS Scandinavian Airlines (http://images.flysas.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: SAS Scandinavian Airlines (http://images.flysas.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Today in Science

Polio Vaccine Creator, Dr. Jonas Salk, Died

Virologist Dr. Jonas Salk, the first scientist to create a vaccine for polio, died on this day in 1995.

Also known as infantile paralysis, polio is a highly contagious disease that can cause muscle pain and paralysis, permanent disability and death. During polio epidemics in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, frightened families fled cities in mass numbers hoping to escape contact with the devastating disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 15,822 polio cases were reported in the United States each year between 1951 and 1955, when mass inoculations with Salk’s inactivated (meaning the virus used to make the vaccine was dead) poliovirus vaccine began. 

By 1981, after a successful vaccination program, the wild virus had been eliminated from the U.S. population. An attenuated (meaning the virus used to make the vaccine was still alive, but neutralized), oral polio vaccine, created by Albert Sabin, also was used to great success elsewhere in the world. Together, the two vaccines have reduced the outbreaks of polio across the globe. At this time, only Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan still have endemic outbreaks of the disease, due, in part, to local resistance to vaccination programs.

In the years before Salk’s vaccine was developed, researchers (including Hilary Koprowski) had been working overtime, searching for a way to prevent the disease as more and more children contracted it. When Salk announced the success of his polio vaccine in 1955, he was hailed as a hero by the public. His refusal to patent the vaccine, a decision that made it easier for the vaccine to be widely disseminated, increased the public’s opinion of him. 

In 1963, he opened the Salk Institute for Biological Studies for scientists to explore the various aspects of the study of life. He published four books and many articles that focused on the intersection between biology and philosophy. In addition to his work on polio, Salk also researched the effectiveness of vaccinations on influenza, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and, at the time of his death, HIV/AIDS.

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