Today, I want to relate a story that was recently told to me by a physician friend. In times like these, it is fascinating how something that seemed so long ago in our past can be so intrinsically tied to the things we are experiencing currently. The story is from the 1950s, when fear from a dreaded contagious disease filled the national consciousness. That disease was poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio. In 1952, almost 60,000 children contracted the disease and thousands were paralyzed. Public opinion polls at the time revealed the only thing Americans feared more than nuclear war was polio. What many didn’t know, however, was that working behind the scenes to defeat polio was a medical scientist named Jonas Salk.
The oldest son of Russian-immigrant parents, Salk was born in New York City in 1914. An excellent student, Salk graduated from New York University School of Medicine and at the age of 33, was appointed director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Going against the prevailing scientific thought, Salk was convinced a safe vaccine of dead polio virus could provide protection against the disease.
In 1952, Salk administered his ‘dead virus’ vaccine to volunteers who had not had polio, including himself, his senior lab scientist, his wife and their three sons. The experiment was a success. In 1954, a nationwide trial of the vaccine was conducted with one million children. On April 12, 1955, the results of the trial were released: the vaccine was effective and safe. A Pittsburgh newspaper ran the headline: “The Shot Heard Round the World.” By 1962, the number of cases of polio had fallen to 910. The last case of polio was recorded in the United States in 1979.
Salk became an overnight celebrity and a national hero. A humble man who sought neither publicity nor fortune, he was interviewed on national TV by renowned newsman Edward R. Murrow. When Murrow asked who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk simply stated: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Lawyers for the University of Pittsburgh had investigated the possibility of patenting the vaccine but did not pursue it, in part, because of Salk’s reluctance.
The story of Jonas Salk is a story of the American dream—how a man, from simple beginnings, through hard work and persistence, changed the world. Because of Jonas Salk, polio is now a mere footnote in the history of modern medicine. Let us pray that soon we can say the same thing about COVID-19. QCBN
By Greg Mengarelli
Greg Mengarelli is the mayor of Prescott.