Dr. Salk: A Brief Bibliography
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
You are on Dr. Salk
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

Edward R. Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

Jonas Salk: Well, the people, I would say.  There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?

See It Now, April 12, 1955
quoted in
Patenting the Sun:
Polio and the Salk Vaccine

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The data was in by October, but tabulation took a long time, and it was March before they could begin the analyze the results.  The National Foundation began to worry.  They had to have the results by mid-April.  Otherwise, if the vaccine worked, there would be no way to manufacture and distribute it in time for the summer polio season.  It took three weeks to analyze the data.  The computers of the time were very, very slow. 

The decision was made to hold a scientific conference at the University of Michigan, home of the Vaccine Evaluation Center, on 12 April 1955.  It was an accident that the date was the tenth anniversary of Roosevelt's death. 

The report for the conference, An Evaluation of the 1954 Poliomyelitis Vaccine Trials was finished on 11 April.  It consisted of fifty pages of text and an even longer appendix of tables and charts.  The first ten pages were a list of all of those people who had supervised different parts of the evaluation and all of the organizations that had helped with either services or volunteers.  The National Foundation wanted to see that everyone was thanked properly for their work.  The paper did not have an author listed.  Instead, it said that it came from the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan, sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.  In effect, it was as if every person who had contributed to the March of Dimes had helped to write this report.1

Somehow, though, this scientific conference became a press conference.  The press packed into Ann Arbor, well over one hundred reporters.  They came from as far away as France, Denmark, and Italy.  The plan had been to distribute the press release from five separate tables to prevent crowding, but the reporters mobbed the publicists at the elevator.  "It works!  It works!" they shouted.  They struggled to call out and dictate their stories.  One reporter climbed out a window with his phone to file his report from the quiet of the roof.2  

The newspapermen had to wait for the presses, but radio and television people didn't.  And around the world, people waited by their radios.  In Europe, people tuned into Voice of America.  Trials were halted, department stores set up speakers, Helen Hayes took the morning off from rehearsals to hear.3   And when the news was heard, the fire sirens blew again and the church bells rang again, and the people took to the streets again, this time to dance and sing and shout and clap their hands.

Downstairs, unaware of the national celebration already underway, the scientific conference was in progress.  And here the real results were announced.  The vaccine was 60-70% effective against type I paralysis.  It was over 90% effective against type II and type III.  And, it was 94% effective against bulbar polio, the type that affected breathing.4  People applauded politely for that news, but they gave thunderous applause to the next speaker, the man everyone associated with the wonderful news: Dr. Jonas Salk.

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Making History
We are among the first children ever
to be given Polio shots.  So we are really
making history today.
We are lucky.

Around the country, labs began to produce polio vaccine and deliver it to doctors.  Then, disaster struck. The polio vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, had been improperly inactivated.  It contained live poliovirus.  Two hundred four people contracted polio from the bad vaccine, over one hundred fifty were paralyzed, and eleven died.5

The Cutter vaccine was recalled, but the vaccinations with other batches continued.  The vaccine was in short supply.  By 1957, when it was widely available, though, no one seemed interested.  It was odd, but it was almost as if people thought the existence of the vaccine was enough to  protect them, whether or not they ever got inoculated.  The National Foundation had to launch a new publicity campaign to promote the vaccine. 

Elvis takes a needle to promote teenage vaccination.
Elvis takes a needle to promote teenage vaccination.

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


1.  Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.  pp. 305-312.

2.  idem.  pp. 317-318.

3.  idem.  p. 319.

4.  idem.  p. 322.

5.  "Polio History Timeline (1955)." A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America.  http://www.pbs.org/storyofpolio/polio/timeline/1955.html.   (5 May 1999).