Polio - The Amazing Dr. Jonas Salk

Polio Prevention - Then and Now

Dr. Jonas Salk, an American medical researcher announced on March 26, 1953 on the radio that he has successfully tested a vaccine to treat poliomyelitis. During 1952 the United States had an epidemic year for polio with 58,000 new cases, and 3000 of those children died from the disease. I remember as a small child how parents were afraid to let their children swim due to the risk of contracting this virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced the polio virus has spread to several new countries, and it is “a public health emergency of international concern” that warrants aggressive measures to control the transmission of this virus. Up until this time polio had been thought to be close to eradication. The only two diseases in the world that have truly been eradicated are smallpox and rinderpest, which is the viral cattle disease.

Map of Afganistan and Pakistan


SplendidSolution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio
Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

Splendid Solution chronicles Dr. Salk's race against time-and a growing epidemic that reached 57,000 reported cases in the summer of 1952-to achieve an unparalleled medical breakthrough that made him a cultural hero and icon for a whole generation.


Areas of the World Affected

Pakistan has the largest number of domestic cases as the Taliban factions have forbidden vaccinations in tribal areas and health care workers have been attacked. In addition, the disease has spread to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Additionally, WHO is concerned about Ethiopia, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria. They are urging all nations to carry out very vigorous immunization campaigns.

Polio had decreased by 99% since 1988 to 406 cases reported in 2013. This year 74 cases have already been officially reported. Previously, polio had been confined to Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. WHO estimates that 1.5 million childhood deaths had been prevented by the systemic administration of Vitamin A along with the polio immunization. Southeast Asia, including India, has been declared polio free due to their vigourous efforts to get children immunized. In the United States polio was eradicated in 1979.

Dr. Jonas Salk


Iron Lung

For victims that could not breathe
For victims that could not breathe | Source

What is Polio?

Polio is a very contagious disease that is caused by the poliovirus, which primarily affects children under five. One out of 200 patients will get irreversible paralysis and from 5% to 10% of those will die as their breathing muscles become immobilized. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and is able to cause paralysis in a few hours.

This contagious virus lives in the intestines and the throat of infected people, so it can be easily spread through a sneeze, by having your hands on feces from a small child and then touching your mouth or face. The disease can be spread to others immediately before symptoms occur and up to 1 to 2 weeks following the development of the disease. It can also live in contaminated food and water when people do not wash their hands.

Life of Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 in New York City. He began conducting research on viruses in the 1930s while he was a medical student at New York University, and during World War II he helped develop flu vaccines. He led the research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh; then, he was awarded a grant to study the polio-virus and develop a possible vaccine in 1948. Polio had previously been known as infantile paralysis. Dr. Salk conducted his first human trials on former polio patients, on himself and his family, and by 1953 he was ready to announce his findings.

Clinical trials using the Salk vaccine along with a placebo began in 1954 on nearly 2,000,000 American schoolchildren. In April 1955 and announcement was made that the vaccine was effective and safe, which began a huge nationwide an occupation campaign.

The impact of the vaccineon polio was phenomenal. In 1952 there were more than 57,000 cases in United States, according to the College of physicians of Philadelphia. Within 10 years that number fell to less than 1000. Albert Sabin developed a live virus vaccine a few years later that was less expensive and much easier to use, but not considered any more effective.

Dr. Salk Continues Research

In 1963 Dr. Salk opened his own research organization, the Salk Center for Biological Studies. Dr. Salk was considered a miracle worker, and he endeared himself to the public because he refused to patent the vaccine. Salk would have been $7 billion richer if his vaccine had been patented. He never had any desire to profit personally from his discovery as his goal was to see the vaccine disseminated as quickly as possible.

He and several other scientists focused on developing cures for other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and cancer. Dr. Salk was the center’s director until 1975, and he continued research and studied AIDS and HIV later in his career. Additionally he wrote several books including:

  • Men Unfolding (1972)
  • The Survival of the Wisest (1973), co-written with his son Jonathan
  • World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981)
  • Anatomy of Reality (1983)

First Polio Vaccines


Personal Life of Jonas Salk

Dr. Salk was married to Donna Lyndsay from 1939 to 1968, and they had three sons together. In 1970 he married Francoise Gilot, an artist, who had previously been romantically involved with Pablo Picasso. They had one child.

He received numerous awards for his work over his lifetime, including the Nobel Prize. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at 80 years of age of congestive heart failure. Dr. Salk obviously earned his place in medical history and will always be remembered as the man who found a cure for polio.

R.Kelly - I Believe I can fly

Famous People who Suffered from Polio

Some open of the famous people that were victims of polio include: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dinah Shore, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow, Francis Ford Coppola, nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Alan Alda, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Lionel Barrymore and one of the world’s finest violinist Itzhak Perlman, who was permanently disabled at the age of four, yet still plays the violin while sitting down. Most of these people were able to overcome their disabilities.

Heartbreaking Reality

While Pakistan is setting up areas for polio vaccines in airports, the children in the rural areas are not being treated. This holds true for Afghanistan and Nigeria as well. The World Health Organization is working vigilantly to get vaccines to needed areas but healthcare workers have been killed, so it is a very difficult task.

I think this would be heartbreaking for Dr. Jonas Salk if he was still alive, as his vaccine is 100% effective, and children under five surely don't deserve to be paralyzed from this disease. The radical element in these countries is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and this difficult situation will not be resolved overnight.

© 2014 Pamela Oglesby

More by this Author

Comments 48 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

I had a friend with polio, and I remember the fear associated with this disease. I guess I really am that old. :)

Very interesting article, Pam. Well done, and Happy Mother's Day to you.

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

That is very sad about the ones that can't be reached for vaccine. I had a younger brother who contracted polio and he was just a baby and there were six more of us who didn't so we never knew how this came about. He was really lucky and it had no lasting effect except maybe a clumsiness or lack of free movement he should have had and we attributed it to the polio since it always was.

Thank God for men like Dr. Salk; how many live and walk because of him? Great article Pam. ^+

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Billy, I'm that old also and remember that fear. Thank you for your comments and the Mother's Day wish.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Jackie, I know a man who had polio and he still has some difficutly walking. It is a horrid disease. It is amazing to be Dr. Salk wasn't in it for the money at all and cared more about healing. I agree with you and thank God there are some men like him that do such a service. Thanks so much for your comments.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 2 years ago from Moundsville, WV


Dr. Salk was a true American hero. I remember when a friend of my brother who had just been at our house came down with polio and the whole neighborhood was in fear. He thankfully survived and was later my primary care physician but died an early death with post polio syndrome in his early 50's.

tobusiness profile image

tobusiness 2 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

Excellent article, how soon we forget! Diseases like Polio, Tuberculosis and Cholera are once again making a come back and the really scary thing is that many of the new bugs are resistance to some of the strongest antibiotics. The world has become a very small place, people are travelling from one country to another in a matter of hours, the experts have been warning about the serious risk since the outbreak of cholera in Haiti. I cannot believe that any sane person would prevent children from getting life saving vaccination. Much kudos to you for spreading awareness.

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Hi Pam! Dr. J. Salk truly contributed one of the single-most vital vaccines known to man.....for which he will always be praised and honored. His discovery drastically changed medical history.

I don't believe I knew that polio had been allowed to spread in the 3rd world countries, due to forbidding vaccines....It is frightening how such ignorance causes unnecessary illness and suffering.....but polio and other deadly disease are rampant in many backward countries.

In my youth, I recall 2 individuals who had been afflicted with polio...a young man I went to school with and an older woman who was my neighbor for years. They were wonderful people who never let their handicap get in the way of having a happy, productive life......yet I always felt so badly that this had happened to them.

Thanks for this educational read! Up+++

always exploring profile image

always exploring 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

I had a sister, Hazel who died from polio at the age of seven. This was long before i was born. My older sisters told me how she would navigate by scooting on her butt. It's so sad that this disease is coming back. I read that it is rampant in Syria. Very interesting article Pam. Enjoyed and tweeted. Thank you...

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Tom, I am so glad to see you stopped by and I appreciate your comments. I think many people did die of post polio syndrome. I remember when my whole family went to the elementary school to get our polio vaccine. Dr. Salk is truly a hero.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Jo, I think children are in danger also, as are travelors. It is important to get all the vaccines depending on where you might be traveling to and wash your hands! I agree that it is scary that these diseases are appearing again and with these superbugs, antibiotics are not always effective. Thanks so much for your comments.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Paula, Polio is just now spreading in the last few years as there were a few cases, but not many. The Taliban, for one, is preventing medical personnel from getting to the people that they need the immunization. I heard this on the news a couple of weeks ago, and it has been on my mind, so I did some research to write this hub.

It is sad to remember the people that suffered when we were young and even the older ones I know that have continued to have problems. Your comments are much appreciated.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Ruby, I am so sorry to hear about your sister. I know that was an awful time for your family. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, the comments and the tweet.

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 2 years ago from Nashville Tn.

Yes, Pamela99 - I remember quite clearly standing in line to receive my polio vaccine. And I sadly recall school mates stricken with polio as well. What a real hero Dr. Salk was. Thank you for this educational read and great information.

Up+++ and sharing.

Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

It is sad to hear that polio is again increasing in places like pakstan and afghanistan due to the Taliban's ignorance. I am also sorry to say that in Australia there has been a decrease in the number of children being systematically immunised against diseases such as polio, measles, TB, German measles etc. due to scare mongering regarding side-effects. The Government had to actually bring in a legislation with-holding child care payments if immunizations aren't received at appropriate stages.great hub pamela. Voted up.

parrster profile image

parrster 2 years ago from Oz

Very well presented hub. Must have been a frightening thing to contract such a disease not knowing if you'd walk again or even survive. Voted up and interesting

DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

I know of people with Polio and it is sad for not being able to have such vaccines. You have created an interesting hub on this topic. Voted up, interesting and useful.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Audry, I am glad you enjoyed this hub and all of us that are a bit older have those memories of classmates stricken by this horrid disease. I appreciate your comments and the share.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Jodah, It is a shame the governement had to take that stand, but surely good news for the children. Immunizations are so important. Thanks so much for your comments and information about Australia.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Parrster, I agreee that the fear must have been awful for those people and the other family members. I appreciate the vote and the comments.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

DDE, It is sad to think chiden can't get vaccinated due to terrorist activity. I really appreciate your comments.

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 2 years ago

Dr. Salk was an American hero. I am heartbroken to learn that the disease is re-emerging. Tragedies like this don't have to happen. This is a fine piece of writing, Pamela. Voted up, interesting and awesome.

lisavanvorst profile image

lisavanvorst 2 years ago from New Jersey

A very informative and sad article. To know we have a vaccine and so many are without is heartbreaking.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

POP, I agree. It makes me angry that people could have so little regard for the life of a child. Thanks so much for your comments.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Lisa, It is heartbreaking. I appreciate your comments.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a very informative hub, Pamela. Thank you for publicizing the current situation with respect to polio, which is very worrying and sad.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Alicia, It is very sad and I appreciate your comments.

bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

When I was in Catholic school (in Philly) there was a boy who had polio as a very young child. He was permanently crippled. At that time (1960's) polio was thought to have been eradicated. I was under the impression it still is. It's frightening to know there are live cases in the world today - especially since it's contagious.

Your list of those who suffered from polio is eye-opening. I had no idea!

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Bravewarrior, I also knew someone in my school about 1960 that was crippled from polio. When I was younger I remember the fear people had for their children. It is so sad that this disease is growing when it is 100% preventable. Thanks so much for your comments.

marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 2 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

Dear Pamela,

Thanks for raising my awareness of the current situation regarding this disease. This is information I intend to share with my community nursing students as health education is a great part of their service learning projects.

Your writing style is powerful in blending understandable health information with a personal reflective voice. Voted UP & UABI.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Maria, I am glad you can use this information to shared with students. Thank you so much for your comments and vote. They are much appreciated. Sorry I have been so slow to respond.

PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Interesting hub, Pamela. I remember Polio as ever present in our childhood. It was common to see kids wearing leg braces like they put on Forrest Gump. We stood in line at school and got our polio shots and the booster shots too. It worries me that the new generation resists the vaccines and fear that it's a conspiracy by Big Pharma. I can't blame them for that but it will take its toll on tomorrow's children.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

PegCole, I certainly agree with you. I am concerned about children who do not receive any of their vaccines as parents worry about mercury causing ADD and other disease. Scientist has recently proved that this belief is simply not true. Thanks so much for your comments as you sure made a good point.

moonlake profile image

moonlake 2 years ago from America

My cousin had polio and now has Post Polio Syndrome . I worry too about kids that don't get their shots. I remember having whooping cough and how awful it was. Voted up on your hub.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Moonlake, I am sorry to hear about your cousin as Post Polio Syndrome is so difficult. I hate the thought of children not getting their vaccines. I remember getting mumps and measles where I had to stay in a dark room for a few days. Thanks for sharing your experience and your comments.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

This was a really interesting read, and of course when I got to that point of not being able to give the vaccine because of the terrorist faction I was so mad! what is there darn problem? its so sad, and everybody should be allowed to take the vaccine which is, as you said, 100 percent good, maybe one day we can live in a world where everyone is sane enough to understand the word caring, Dr. Jonas salk was an amazing guy, nell

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Nell Rose, I would like to think the world will one day be good, but there are sure a lot of awful things happening right now. It makes me so mad also. Children do not deserve to suffer. Thanks for your comments.

Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 2 years ago from West By God

Thank you for this article. While reading it a thought came to mind....how many are taught about this man now and how many really know about him. This needs to go out into the public more and more. There are several others that also need to come back into the public's eye. Voted up and interesting and def. sharing.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

What a shame that polio has reoccurred again in these countries. It is horrible that the Taliban will not allow the children in these countries to be vaccinated. What do they have against it? I have knew people when I was younger who had suffered from polio. They could walk but their legs were deformed from the virus. No one should ever be denied the polio vaccine. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Lady Guinevere, That is true. So many people do not know about some of these outstanding individuals that worked so hard and gave so much without looking for money or glory. Thank you so much for your comments and the share.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Suzette, I think the Taliban just hates everyone that is not one of them and they sure have no compassion for children. It is sad. I am glad the hub has increased awareness and I appreciate your comments.

mbuggieh 2 years ago

It will not be long before polio returns to the entire world---including the United States.

The reason: The celebrity-driven anti-vaccination campaign that has already contributed to an epidemic of whooping cough (a sometimes fatal disease) in California as well as measles (also sometimes fatal) in several states.

It is not just the Taliban that is putting children at risk. So are several American celebrities/media pundits and medical quacks and parents.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

mbuggieh, You make a very good point! It is a shame that there are no consequences to the people who spread the false information. They have proven that mercury is not harming children as so many thought. Thank you so much for your comments.

RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

Interesting post with some thought-provoking discussion in comments. Could it be that the taliban refuse the vaccine because Salk was Jewish? He well knew of the ages-old opposition to his people and others from that region of the world, but aren't we thankful that he was free in this country to do his work! Disease cannot be eradicated in this world, but to consider the efforts of those who have fought to wage battle against illnesses and help those who are ill is heartening and inspiring. While I think there is much we have yet to learn about how vaccines affect a wide variety of people, the lives that have been saved and the diseases that have been dealt a blow is amazing. Thanks for highlighting this man's work here.

Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 2 years ago from West By God

RTalloni I never thought of that about Salk being Jewish and the factions in the Taliban.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

RTolloni, I had not considered that Salk being Jewish wound be a factor. I don't know as the Taliban just seem to kill Christians and other groups, but you may be onto something. I do believe I read that they are stopping all vaccines though.

It is sad to think now we can't irradicate a disease when it was almost completely done. I also agree that we have much to learn. I am glad you were interested in this hub, and I appreciate your cpmments.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Lady Guinevere, That was my response also and it could be a factor. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Terrible disease. I remember going to get my sugar cube vaccine for polio a long time ago.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 2 years ago from United States Author

Rebecca, This really is a terrible disease and it doesn't have to happen. I appreciate your comments.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article