WE DIDN’T START THE FIRE
FROM A TO Z
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everyone had access to, my boyfriend (now husband) and I headed to the local public library and looked up all the historical references.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.
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.