On September 27, 1989, the iconic song by Billy Joel,  We Didn’t Start the Fire hit the airwaves.  It was a history lesson set to music.  When you first heard the song, did you know or remember all the people places, things and events mentioned in the lyrics?  I sure didn’t.  Back in 1989 before the internet was something everyone had access to, my boyfriend (now husband) and I headed to the local public library and looked up all the historical references.  This month, for the A to Z Challenge, I am writing about that history.

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it
Today is brought to you by the letter V.

The first effective polio vaccine was developed in 1952 by Jonas Salk and a team at the University of Pittsburgh that included Julius Youngner, Byron Bennett, L. James Lewis, and Lorraine Friedman, which required years of subsequent testing. Salk went on CBS radio to report a successful test on a small group of adults and children on 26 March 1953; two days later the results were published in JAMA.  Beginning 23 February 1954, the vaccine was tested at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Salk’s vaccine was then used in a test called the Francis Field Trial, led by Thomas Francis; the largest medical experiment in history at that time. The test began with approximately 4,000 children at Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, and would eventually involve 1.8 million children, in 44 states from Maine to California. By the conclusion of the study, roughly 440,000 received one or more injections of the vaccine, about 210,000 children received a placebo, consisting of harmless culture media, and 1.2 million children received no vaccination and served as a control group, who would then be observed to see if any contracted polio.

The results of the field trial were announced 12 April 1955 (the tenth anniversary of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose paralysis was generally believed to have been caused by polio). The Salk vaccine had been 60–70% effective against PV1 (poliovirus type 1), over 90% effective against PV2 and PV3, and 94% effective against the development of bulbar polio. Soon after Salk’s vaccine was licensed in 1955, children’s vaccination campaigns were launched. In the U.S, following a mass immunization campaign promoted by the March of Dimes, the annual number of polio cases fell from 35,000 in 1953 to 5,600 by 1957. By 1961 only 161 cases were recorded in the United States. Pierre Lépine at the Pasteur Institute in Paris nearly simultaneously announced an effective polio vaccine.

Growing up in the 1960s; I have two distinctive memories about polio. (1) I received the vaccine via a sugar cube.  As a kid, that was some event.  Who ever heard of medicine coming with sugar ; (2) The episode of the Waltons television show where the mother, Olivia Walton was diagnosed with polio (late 1930s) but she recovered.  Her recovery was sudden as she heard her youngest child, Elizabeth calling for her.  She got up from bed to go to her child and walked.

The vaccine for polio is privately tested by Jonas Salk.

16 responses

  1. I grew up in the 50’s and had a friend with polio. It scared all of us. We were not allowed to run through the sprinklers, lest we get infected. Paranoia ruled. This vaccine was a true miracle.


  2. Birgit says:

    I have read about this and learn d how much this meant to the world. I also had a friend who’s father contracted polio when he was 17. He recovered but always had to wear a brace on his leg. One thing I’m happy about is that bitch Jenny McCarthy, who caused so much fear about immunizing children, was never successful about polio. She really should be jailed for all the harm she did.


  3. Bob Scotney says:

    Polio seemed to be common when I was young; now thank goodness it is much rarer thanks to that vaccine.

    V for The Vyne http://bit.ly/2p2SlEO


  4. Morgan says:

    Vaccines are amazing. Look at the drop in those numbers. So many harmful diseases have been almost eliminated due to vaccinations. Why do people want to bring back the things science and research have worked so hard to eliminate? I don’t understand….

    Once Upon a Time


  5. I love Billy Joel. What a songwriter.


  6. Arlee Bird says:

    I remember taking the oral vaccine. It wasn’t in a sugar cube, but in a liquid on a spoon and it did taste kind of good.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


  7. Gail says:

    My English teacher in High School was in a wheelchair her whole life after contracting polio as a child. She was my favorite teacher and beloved by all, but so sad to see her confined like that.


  8. Liam says:

    I remember drinking polio vaccine from a small cup, but it was still sweet like a fruit punch.


  9. John Holton says:

    Sounds weird to say this, but I owe my existence to polio. My mom was “lavaliered” (engaged to be engaged) to a guy who came down with polio. He asked my father to take her to a dance, and the rest is history. Mom’s ex spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

    It’s interesting to note that lots of people recovered pretty well from it. Richard Deacon had it as a kid and took up dance to fully recover. Game show host Bill Cullen had it as a kid and never let him stop him, though he always appeared behind a desk or seated when he was on a game show, because of his limp.


  10. I know some vaccines get a bad rap these days, but I am so thankful for all of them. I share your memory of lining up to get the sugar cubes. Perspectives at Life & Faith in Caneyhead


  11. Beth Lapin says:

    I have similar memories… and thinking how certain illnesses now will become polios of the past… meaning nothing to fear…

    Affirmations for a Good Life


  12. Bernie says:

    Good site! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified when a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a nice day!


  13. […] I wrote in V is for Vaccine, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine is declared safe and effective in […]