May 23: A Vaccine for the Most Feared Disease of the 20th Century


Today 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 the deadly childhood disease.

Polio was the most feared childhood illness of the 20th century. An untreatable virus which spread quickly and rarely exhibited any preliminary symptoms, polio could result in partial or total paralysis or even death, and not just to children. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used a wheelchair for most of his adult life due to polio he was afflicted with at age 39. Other partially paralyzed victims lost the ability to breathe on their own, and were forced to spend their lives in massive artificial respirators known as “iron lungs.”

An “Iron Lung” respirator.

After decades of failed attempts to find either a cure for, or a vaccine protective against, the polio virus, one American researcher finally achieved a breakthrough. In 1952, Jonas Salk, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, created the first stable and effective polio vaccine. Following a lengthy series of trials, the vaccine was declared both safe and effective in 1955. 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 subsequently developed Sabin oral vaccine – which enabled vaccination without painful injections — caused polio cases to plummet from 58,000 in 1952 to fewer than 200 nine years later. In 1979, the crippling childhood disease was officially declared eliminated in the United States. One of the 20th century’s great medical and scientific accomplishments began for the children of Stafford Springs, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Polio,” March of Dimes website

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