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How The Polio Vaccine Was Developed (And All The Hiccups Along The Way)

1900s | April 30, 2021

Child vaccinated with Dr. Salk’s vaccine against polio in 1956. (Jean-Pierre Grisel/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Polio has plagued humans for thousands of years, but the number of cases dramatically spiked in the early 20th century, even as other dreaded diseases (diphtheria, tuberculosis, and typhoid, just to name a few) were on the decline. Although the majority of people stricken with the highly contagious disease had mild cases and made full recoveries, many were left paralyzed or dependent on artificial respirators. Thanks to Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the C.D.C. declared polio eradicated from the western hemisphere in 1994, but getting to that point was slow progress with some horrific setbacks.

A Failed First Attempt

Dr. John A. Kolmer of Philadelphia's Temple University was working on a polio vaccine as early as 1935, using a weakened but live sample of the poliovirus. Kolmer's ego was his fatal flaw: Eager to be the first scientist to develop an effective polio vaccine, he rushed into testing about 10,000 children throughout the United States and Canada, five of whom died and 10 more of whom were paralyzed. As if that wasn't bad enough, these tests actually introduced polio to communities that had previously had no outbreaks, sickening many beyond his test subjects. The backlash was intense: Kolmer received harsh criticism from the government and fellow researchers, and some even labeled him a murderer.

Dr. Maurice Brodie, c. 1932. (National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons)

An Even Worse Second Attempt

Following the disaster of Dr. Kolmer's vaccine, Canadian scientist Dr. Maurice Brodie theorized that various methods of rendering bacteria ineffective could solve the whole "infecting people with the virus the vaccine is supposed to protect them from" problem. It didn't work because bacteria and viruses are different things, but Brodie was so confident in his creation that he tested the vaccine on himself, some of his colleagues, and about 7,000 children. Nine of them died.

Administration of the polio vaccine, including by Salk himself, in 1957 at the University of Pittsburgh, where his team had developed the vaccine. (The Owl/Wikimedia Commons)

Success?

Finally, on March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that he had created an effective vaccine to prevent polio, and within two years, it was approved by the federal government. That doesn't mean it was smooth sailing from there, though. As labs hustled to churn out the vaccine at a time when infections had reached record highs, California's Cutter Laboratories inadvertently shipped out vaccines containing live poliovirus. They were distributed to 200,000 children in five western states, and within days, as children fell ill, it was clear something was wrong. All the Cutter vaccines were pulled, but not before 10 children were dead and more than 200 were paralyzed. The Cutter Incident, as it became known, was a public relations nightmare for the C.D.C., who had to spend a lot of time and money to eventually convince the country the polio vaccine was safe.

Tags: 1900s | polio | vaccines

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.