On This Day in 1954, Virginia Led the Way as Polio Vaccine Trials Began
As we continue to emerge from the coronavirus global pandemic that has consumed the world for the past two years, the reminder that polio was once a feared debilitating virus shows how vaccines and science have moved us beyond ancient times when there were no cures (History).
On April 26, 1954, the Salk polio vaccine field trials, involving 1.8 million children, begin at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia. Children in the United States, Canada and Finland participated in the trials, which used for the first time the now-standard double-blind method, whereby neither the patient nor attending doctor knew if the inoculation was the vaccine or a placebo.
One year later, on April 12, 1955, researchers announced the vaccine was safe and effective and it quickly became a standard part of childhood immunizations in America. In the ensuing decades, polio vaccines would all but wipe out the highly contagious disease in the Western Hemisphere.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who was paralyzed from the waist down from polio, began a fundraising drive that became known as the March of Dimes, popular with school children, who donated dimes that were used in research to develop a polio vaccine:
The man behind the original vaccine was New York-born physician and epidemiologist Jonas Salk (1914-95). Salk’s work on an anti-influenza vaccine in the 1940s, while at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, led him, in 1952 at the University of Pittsburgh, to develop the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), based on a killed-virus strain of the disease. The 1954 field trials that followed, the largest in U.S. history at the time, were led by Salk’s former University of Michigan colleague, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr.
As a result of the vaccines, a feared childhood disease was eliminated in most of the world but not completely destroyed. Small outbreaks can still be found mainly in Africa and Asia.