May 23: Vaccine to Prevent Polio Distributed Across Connecticut


On this day in 1955, hundreds of schoolchildren in the town of Stafford Springs lined up to be vaccinated against polio, as part of a massive statewide effort to protect young Connecticans from getting the deadly childhood disease.

Polio was the most feared childhood illness of the early 20th century.  An untreatable virus which spread quickly and rarely exhibited any initial symptoms, polio could result in partial or total paralysis or even death, and not just to children.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life due to a case of polio he was afflicted with at age 39; other partially-paralyzed victims were forced to remain in massive artificial respirators known as “iron lungs” in order to breathe.

An “Iron Lung” respirator.

After decades of attempts to find cures and vaccines for the polio virus, one American researcher finally made a breakthrough.  In 1952, Jonas Salk, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, created the first stable and effective polio vaccine.  After a series of trials, the vaccine was declared both safe and effective at preventing polio in 1955, and the federal government, together with the March of Dimes, immediately launched a fully-funded national vaccination campaign.

A CDC-sponsored poster advocating vaccination against polio using the Sabin oral vaccine, circa 1963.

Salk’s new vaccine, combined with this rigorous nationwide public health campaign and the Sabin oral vaccine which enabled vaccination without painful injections, caused polio cases to plummet over the following decade, from 58,000 reported cases in 1952 to fewer than 200 in 1961. In 1979, the crippling childhood disease was officially declared eliminated in the United States – one of the most incredible American medical and scientific accomplishments of the 20th century.

Further Reading

Polio,” March of Dimes website

Eliza Berman, “How the Polio Vaccine Trials Relieved a Worried Nation,” Time Magazine