Polio (aka poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis) is a horrific disease. Even though 99.5 percent of those infected exhibit no or minor symptoms, they are nonetheless contagious for up to several months until the body eliminates the virus naturally. The remaining 0.5 percent of those infected—a number that includes tens of millions of people throughout recorded history—either become permanently paralyzed or die.1

The first documented outbreaks of polio occurred in the late 19th century, but they were irregular and geographically inconsistent.2 By the 1940s and 1950s, however, the disease killed more than five hundred thousand people worldwide each year.3 In the United States, comparatively minor polio outbreaks were an annual occurrence from the mid-1910s onward, but in 1943, the yearly totals—for the first time—exceeded ten thousand new cases and one thousand deaths. With each subsequent year, these numbers continued to rise.4

In 1947, Jonas Salk—a medical researcher who, alongside his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., had developed the first highly effective influenza vaccine—made it his personal mission to eradicate polio. . . .


1. Jennifer Hamborsky, Andrew Kroger, and Charles Wolfe, Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (Washington, DC: Public Health Foundation, 2015), ch. 18.

2. Barry Trevelyan, Matthew Smallman-Raynor, and Andrew D. Cliff, “The Spatial Dynamics of Poliomyelitis in the United States: From Epidemic Emergence to Vaccine-Induced Retreat, 1910–1971,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 95, no. 2, (2005):, 269–293.

3. Canadian International Immunization Initiative. “What is Polio?” Archived September 29, 2007. Accessed April 22, 2019.

4. Sophie Ochmann and Max Roser, “Polio,” Our World In Data, 2017, https://ourworldindata.org/polio.

5. “Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin,” Science History Institute, January 8, 2017, https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/jonas-salk-and-albert-bruce-sabin.

6. Kevin Loughlin, “Salk and Sabin: The Disease, the Rivalry and the Vaccine,” Hekoten International, vol. 10, no. 3, (Summer 2018), https://hekint.org/2018/01/30/salk-sabin-disease-rivalry-vaccine/.

7. Ochmann and Roser, “Polio.”

8. Dennis Thompson, “The Salk Polio Vaccine: ‘Greatest Public Health Experiment in History,’” Consumer Healthday, December 2, 2014, https://consumer.healthday.com/kids-health-information-23/kids-ailments-health-news-434/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history-691915.html.

9. Shally Awasthi et al., “Vitamin A Supplementation Every 6 Months with Retinol in 1 Million Pre-School Children in North India,” Lancet 381, no. 9876 (Spring 2013): 1469–77.

10. Thompson, “The Salk Polio Vaccine.”

11. Ochmann and Roser, “Polio.”

12. Thompson, “The Salk Polio Vaccine.”

13. Vincent Racaniello, “Why Do We Still Use Sabin Poliovirus Vaccine?,” Virology Blog, September 10, 2015, http://www.virology.ws/2015/09/10/why-do-we-still-use-sabin-poliovirus-vaccine/; Science History Institute, “Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin.”

14. Science History Institute, “Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin.”

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