To Catch a Killer: The Search for the Vaccine to Prevent Poliomyletis
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Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

In the United States, the latter half of the 19th century was characterized by virulent disease.  The industrial revolution brought people crowding into cities.  They came from the American farm.  They immigrated from overseas.  These cities were not prepared to handle the influx of residents.   Typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pertussis, and measles killed tens of thousands of people. 

As medical knowledge increased, it became apparent that these diseases could be controlled in part through sanitation.  Huge public works projects were undertaken to ensure that cities had clean water.  For example, in 1885 a cholera/typhus epidemic killed 90,000 Chicagoans; in 1900, the Chicago River's direction was reversed, so that the city's sewage was carried to the Mississippi instead of into Lake Michigan and the city's water supply.1   Projects like this slowed the spread of these diseases.

Then, quite suddenly, a new disease appeared.  It seemed to come out of nowhere.  It started out like a cold, with a mild fever.  Some people never got any sicker.  Some people woke up one morning unable to move.  Some were suddenly unable to breathe.  Some died.  Of those who recovered, some recovered completely.  Some were permanently paralyzed.  The affected limbs were not just impotent; they twisted in on themselves, horribly deforming the victims.   People lived in fear of this new crippler/killer they called infantile paralysis

From 1916 until 1954, there was at least one polio epidemic every summer somewhere in the U.S.2  Epidemics meant thousands, tens of thousands, of children ill, in hospital.  While ill, children were paralyzed.  They could not move,  many could not even breathe.  They were confined to iron lungs.  Air was repeatedly pumped into and sucked from the sealed chambers in which their bodies lay; the pressure caused their lungs to inflate and deflate.  The hissing and thudding of the machine would be a counterpoint for their lives for months or years.  Row upon row of children were laid out like cordwood in newly constructed polio respiratory wards, or in field hospitals thrown up to isolate the infected.

Child in an iron lung c. 1930.
Child in an iron lung c. 1930.
Photo courtesy of the March of Dimes

Two generations of Americans lived in terror of the plague that came from nowhere, felled thousands, had no cure and no treatment, and had a cruelly particular love for children.

Then, as suddenly as the disease appeared, it was stopped short.  Inspired by the fear this dread disease engendered, empowered by a president who was himself a victim, and funded by the average American seeking to protect the nation's children, scientists searched for a cure.  What they found was a preventive, a vaccine.  The Salk vaccine was the first weapon against polio.  It turned the tide, and ended the terror.

Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  "The Chicago River."  Friends of the Chicago River.   (15 May 1999).

2.  Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.  New York, New York: William Morrow & Co.   1990.   p. 39.

Created by
Lauren Pomerantz
as a project for

Humanities 410
Contemporary World
Devry Institute of Technology
Pomona, California
Spring 1999