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Eradicating Polio: When Two Jewish Researchers Changed the World

March 16, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin invented vaccines against polio.

Panic gripped the country as the virus spread. Schools closed and cities were quarantined. It wasn’t anxiety over Covid 19, but another scourge that haunted patients a generation ago: polio.

Before the mid-1950s, polio cases surged in the United States and around the world each summer. Up to 50,000 Americans became infected each year; in 1952, 3,000 people died from polio in the United States alone. The disease (officially called paralytic poliomyelitis) caused an infection in the central nervous system, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis. Children were particularly at risk: thousands were left with severe impairment each year and the disease killed between 2-10% of people who contracted it.

A September 7, 1937 article from the Milwaukee Sentinel illustrates the panic many parents felt as they tried to keep their children safe: “An edict barring children under 7 from school and other public gathering places was promulgated yesterday” the article announced, noting the “possibility of postponing the opening of all grades should the situation become more alarming…” A local public health authority advised parents to keep young children “in their own backyards,” alone, and advised them not to attend parties, picnics, and beaches.

As families across the US and the globe clamored for research into this deadly disease, two young Jewish doctors made a series of startling breakthroughs, eventually finding cures for polio. Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin saved many thousands of lives and protected unknown numbers of children from paralysis and other health complications. The polio vaccines they developed changed society, lifting the dread of polio that our parents and grandparents lived under.

Albert Sabin’s Early Research

Albert Sabin was born in 1906 in Bialystok, Poland. Like many Jews, the Sabins faced intense anti-Semitism; the threat of violence was never far away. In 1921, when Albert was fifteen, his parents, Tillie and Jacob, saved up enough money to move their family to Paterson, New Jersey, where they had relatives. Albert knew no English, so his cousins tutored him when the family arrived. A brilliant student, after six weeks Albert knew the language well enough to enroll in high school in Paterson, where he excelled.

One of Albert’s uncles was a dentist and he promised to pay for Albert’s college if he became a dentist too. Albert enrolled in New York University, one of the few universities which didn’t have Jewish quotas at the time. He loved medicine and science, but realized that dentistry was not for him. Instead, he managed to take on extra jobs and obtain enough scholarships to finance medical school on his own, where he embraced medical research and virology.

He graduated from medical school at New York University in 1931; that year a major polio outbreak panicked the city. Sabin decided to devote himself to research on polio. He trained as a pathologist and studied in London and New York before eventually moving to Cincinnati in 1939 where he worked at the University of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital Research Foundation, investigating viruses.

When World War II broke out, Dr. Sabin became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Medical Corps, where he studied viruses affecting American troops around the world, producing some startling breakthroughs. One of his earliest subjects was on “sandfly fever” which was sickening American troops in North Africa: Dr. Sabin showed that the disease was being spread by mosquitoes and that mosquito repellant could help minimize the disease.

Dr. Sabin also conducted vital wartime research on dengue fever, toxoplasmosis and encephalitis, all of which were bedeviling American troops. A vaccine he helped develop against encephalitis was given to about 70,000 American troops who were preparing for a possible invasion of Japan.

Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 in the Bronx, New York. The Jonas family was a poor Jewish family with four children. Jonas’ father, Daniel Salk, worked in the garment industry; his mother Doris always encouraged Jonas to do “something extraordinary” with his life.

# "Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.”

From an early age, Jonas realized he wanted to change the world by performing medical research. He attended City College New York then, like Sabin, went to New York University’s medical school. No matter how brilliant his mind, Jonas’ Jewishness was a barrier to his success in the medical field in the 1930s. When he applied for a fellowship performing medical research, he asked his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, a famous researcher of infectious disease, for a reference. Dr. Francis concluded his recommendation of Dr. Salk by addressing the anti-Semitism that was rampant at the time: “Dr. Salk is a member of the Jewish race but has, I believe, a very great capacity to get on with people.”

The Salk family

Together with Dr. Francis, Dr. Salk did groundbreaking work that eventually led to a flu vaccine. Their research was hailed as a patriotic and vital addition to the war effort during World War II. Dr. Salk later joined the University of Pittsburgh and became head of virus research there. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he - like researchers around the world - turned his attention to one of the most pressing public health crises of the day: polio.

Race to a Polio Vaccine

Albert Sabin made a startling discovery: polio was caused by a virus that lived and thrived in the small intestines of infected people. He and other researchers realized that a vaccine might be able to prevent the virus from ever entering the bloodstream, preventing it from colonizing and spreading within patients’ intestines.

Some polio vaccines had been tried, but they’d tragically resulted in death and the infection and paralysis of people who tried them. As the 1950s began, incidents of polio increased and the public clamored for more research and for treatment for this terrible disease. The race was on to develop an effective polio vaccine.

Jonas Salk was part of a prestigious team surveying all polio cases in America. It soon became clear to him that any effective vaccine would have to contain strains from three distinct polio variations. Though he was one of the youngest researchers laboring on the polio vaccine, Dr. Salk was undeterred. His self-confidence sometimes alienated others, but he was confident that he and his research team were on the right track. Salk drew on recent research about growing vaccines in animal tissues under laboratory conditions, and cultivated polio virus cells in monkey kidney cells. He then killed these virus cells using formaldehyde. Dr. Salk’s goal was to develop a vaccine using these dead polio cells.

This clashed with much conventional wisdom at the time that a vaccine using live polio cells would be superior. This was the path that Albert Sabin was taking, growing a live-cell vaccine. His vaccine had the advantage of using manipulated polio cells: since these were not the same cells that caused diseases in humans, it was thought that Sabin’s “live” virus vaccine would be safer. It also had the advantage of being able to be administered orally, instead of through an injection as the “dead” virus vaccines had to be. Salk and Sabin’s professional rivalry devolved into a personal rivalry as well, with each feeling their own potential vaccine was superior and disparaging that of their rivals.

In 1954, with the stakes mounting, Jonas Salk took a dramatic step. His “dead” cell vaccine had been tested in animals, but officials were reluctant to test it in humans. Dr. Salk injected his vaccine into himself - as well as into his wife and children. They were the first humans to be vaccinated against polio using Salk’s invention. When no ill effects occurred, the world clamored for his vaccine.

In 1954, the polio charity March of Dimes arranged a large-scale trial for children ages six to nine. Over a million children took part. Parents raced to push their children into line to be considered. The trial was given major media coverage, which alienated many scientists and doctors from Dr. Salk, whom they saw as attention-seeking. Still, the possibility of finding a vaccine for polio electrified the nation. Half of the children taking part in the trial received Salk’s vaccine and one half received placebos. At the end of the trial, it was announced that Dr. Salk’s vaccine was successful: he’d found a way to prevent polio.

Dr. Thomas Francis, who’d overseen Salk’s trials, called a major press conference at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955. Over 50,000 doctors watched the broadcast in specially arranged theatre screenings. Millions of people tuned in to hear the conference on the radio. Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine had been found to be “safe and effective” it was announced. Throughout the country, people burst into celebration. Church bells rang. People embraced and burst into tears. Drug companies started production on hundreds of millions of doses of Salk’s vaccine.

Continuing Polio Research

Although Dr. Salk’s vaccine was widely embraced, Dr. Sabin continued to do research on his “live” vaccine. He conducted major trials outside of the United States, so that people who’d already received Dr. Salk’s vaccine wouldn’t be included and cloud the results. Many of Dr. Sabin’s trials took place in eastern Europe and other Communist countries, where it was found that his vaccine was also effective in preventing polio.

Jonas Salk with his family

Dr. Sabin’s had several advantages over Dr. Salk’s. Salk’s vaccine had to be injected and also required periodic booster shots. Sabin’s vaccine could be taken orally and never needed any follow-up doses. In addition, Dr. Sabin’s live vaccine seemed to be “catching”, much as a regular virus might, and provided protection even for people who’d never received a vaccination. By the mid-1960s, Dr. Sabin’s vaccine became the preferred vaccine used in the United States.

Further Endeavors

After abolishing polio, the lives of Salk and Sabin diverged enormously. Jonas Salk moved to California and seemed to drift both personally and professionally. Though he did conduct some research on AIDS in the 1980s, he never again neared the success he’d achieved in his work on the polio vaccine. One of his greatest post-vaccine projects was establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, which brought scientists and leading contributors to other fields together to work towards goals that could benefit the human race.

Albert Sabin later conducted research into cancer. He became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in 1970, though he had to step down two years later because of ill health. Albert Sabin died in 1993 at the age of 86. Jonas Salk passed away in 1995 at the age of 80. When they died, polio was a disease of the past, relegated to history books thanks to their tireless research and brilliance.

A Legacy of Service

Neither Jonas Salk nor Albert Sabin ever patented their vaccines, even though doing so could have made them unimaginably wealthy. On April 12, 1955, Dr. Salk appeared on television and journalist Edward R. Murrow asked him who owned the patent to the polio vaccine he’d invented. Salk answered, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” By not profiting from their vaccines, both Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin helped ensure that the vaccines would remain inexpensive and widely available.

The generosity and ingenuity of these two doctors inspired a generation of Americans. In 1983, Dr. Sabin was diagnosed with ascending paralysis: ironically, this man who’d done so much to save others from paralysis suffered from two years of paralysis himself. After he was diagnosed, the Chicago Tribune wrote about his plight and printed his home address, suggesting that the public write him get-well cards and thank him for all his work.

Over 100,000 people wrote to Dr. Sabin. Local school children volunteered to help him count the letters and reply to them. Dr. Sabin’s wife explained, “When I read them to him, I cry… All the people thanking him… when I read those letters to him, I can hardly continue.” Dr. Sabin told the newspaper. “I can’t even tell you the feeling it gives me. It makes me feel that what I did was somehow worthwhile. You always have a feeling of doubting whether what you have done with your life is truly worthwhile… People forget. But these letters…as long as I live, these letters will give me a feeling of warmth.”

These two pioneering researchers changed the world and deserve to be remembered.

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