February 23, 1954: The First Polio Vaccine is Given


On February 23, 1954, a group of first, second and third graders in local Pittsburgh elementary schools became the first children inoculated with the Polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.

In the 1950s, Poliomyelitis was an extremely contagious disease and was nearly impossible to contain. Polio was extremely common in children.

Polio leads to muscle deterioration, paralysis and, potentially, death. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the most famous victims when he became permanently paralyzed after contracting the disease from an outbreak.


With Roosevelt's help, an organization called the National Foundation on Infantile Paralysis was founded to find a cure, and enlisted the help of Dr. Jonas Salk to head their team.

During his research, he found that the Polio virus had found 125 strains of 3 different type of Polio, and that an effective vaccination would need to kill all 3 types. He grew samples of the virus and deactivated them, finding that patients could be immunized without first being infected.

The clinical trials were the largest ever conducted, the 4 million vaccinations administered by 1955. He achieved a 65% success rate for Type 1, 90% for Type 2 and 94% for Type 3. Today, it is closer to 99% effective once all 3 doses are administered.

Famously, Dr. Salk refused to patent the vaccination, which could have been worth up to $7 billion. He said "would you patent the sun?" implying that a medical advance of this caliber was morally imperative and should be available for all.


Dr. Jonas Salk was born in New York City in 1914 to Ashkenazi Jewish parents. He had 2 younger brothers, one that went on to become a renowned child psychologist.

When he was 13 old he attended Townsend Harris High School, a school for intellectually gifted students who did not have the money or pedigree to attend top tier private schools. He was really smart and considered a perfectionist by his peers.

After he graduated, he enrolled in the City College of New York for a bachelor in science in chemistry, though he wanted to become a lawyer. His mother wanted him to go to medical school. He was not entirely interested in medicine.

But after city college, he enrolled in New York University to study medicine. He stood out from his peers, but not only because of his extreme academic prowess, but because he had no interest in practicing medicine, but research. He wanted to help humankind rather than just individual patients.

So after graduating, he worked in a lab for 2 months where he was first introduced to virology, and he became hooked. He was contacted to learn more about polio and find a cure. He put together a team of Julius Youngner, Byron Bennett, L. James Lewis, and Lorraine Friedman.

After he successfully found the immunization for Polio, he became something of a celebrity, being cheered for on airplanes and getting upgrades to penthouses in hotels. But he did not want to be famous and did not like the publicity. He preferred to just be in his lab doing work.

He also married his long-time girlfriend Donna Lindsay the day after his graduation. Her father thought he was not good enough for his daughter, who was a master's candidate for social work, and would not allow his daughter to marry him until he could put "M.D." after his name on the invitation. They had 3 children but ultimately divorced in 1968. In 1970, he married a French painter named Francoise Gilot.


Polio, though an extremely effective vaccination has existed for years, has begun to make a comeback in Pakistan, which was on the brink of being eradicated. Between January and September of 2019, 58 people contracted Polio, which was nearly 5 times the total people in 2018. (3)

Pakistan was one of the last countries where Polio still existed, but the same suspicion in modern medicine and uninformed rumors that has run rampant in the U.S. at the hands of anti-vaxxers has lead to the comeback. (3)

Nearly 2 million Pakistani households have refused vaccinations because of Facebook and Twitter rumors that vaccinations were making children sick. Some families also refuse to vaccinate their children for political purposes, saying they will withhold vaccinations if the authorities don't withdraw sales tax. Their argument is that Polio could disable their children, but the raised taxes would make their children die from starvation. (3)

Polio has been eradicated in the U.S. since 1979 (4) which is great, but that has not stopped the anti-vax movement from bringing back other previously eliminated diseases. The measles has been eliminated in the U.S. since 2000, but more and more outbreaks have occurred since the movement has begun. In 2014, the number of measles accounts tripled from the highest number of cases in the 13 years before. (5)

The Polio vaccination was an absolutely critical moment in history, and has saved and changed the lives of millions of people. Though Polio is no longer a threat to the U.S., neither was the measles and it has made a comeback. The spread of uninformed information through social media has lead to a ridiculous amount of people not believing in scientifically proven medications that save and change the lives of so many people. And one of those vaccinations was developed 66 years ago today.


1. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/02/day-history-february-23rd-first-mass-inoculation/

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonas_Salk

3. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-09-04/anti-vaxxers-helping-polio-comeback-pakistan

4. https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/polio-us.html

5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/01/23/how-the-u-s-went-from-eliminating-measles-to-a-measles-outbreak-at-disneyland/

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