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Preventing polio: A grateful nation honors Dr. Jonas Salk

February 16, 2016

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Dr. Jonas Salk

In 1955, the U.S. Congress awarded Dr. Jonas Salk this Congressional Gold Medal for his achievements in polio research and vaccination. This medal is now on exhibit in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

For many children in the 1940s and 1950s, the polio disease was an ever-present fear. Prior to the 1950s, the main option for treatment was an iron lung, a machine that used negative air pressure to mimic natural breathing. The iron lung compensated for paralyzed respiratory muscles damaged by the poliovirus.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who contracted polio in 1921 at age 39, sought to find a cure for the disease that robbed him of his mobility. In 2014, Judith Savastio​ donated to the Pennsylvania State Archives previously never-before-seen footage of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt walking, while assisted, up a ramp in Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium.

In 1938, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes. This organization, which became instrumental in funding polio vaccine research, was eventually headed by Dr. Jonas Salk, an epidemiologist. The U.S. Congress, in 1955, awarded Salk the Congressional Gold Medal for his achievements in polio research and vaccination. CAP Curator Katie McGowan selected a copy of this award, now on exhibit in Pennsylvania Icons, as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.

Polio attacks the nervous system, and although earlier manifestations of the disease mimicked the flu, about 1 in 200 cases resulted in total or partial paralysis of the spine and legs.​ By 1953, at least 21,000 cases of polio-realted paralysis plagued the United States and, most often, affected children under 12 years old.

Salk received his medical degree from New York University in 1939, and worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Three years later, with the help of grant funding, Salk started working on an influenza vaccine at the University of Michigan. However, the need for an effective polio treatment was greater, and in 1947 he was appointed Director of the Virus Research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.

Salk made use of an emerging vaccination technique that employed an inactivated strain of the polio virus to trick the body into producing antibodies. He tested the new vaccine on himself, as well as family members, with positive results. Salk’s vaccination treatment was successful when used as a preventative measure, as it did nothing for those already infected with polio. Even today, polio has no known “cure”, but can be prevented through vaccination.

In 1954, Salk administered the vaccine to one million test subjects dubbed the “Polio Pioneers”. The polio virus was at its peak, but within one year, none of the test patients had contracted the virus, leading to the inoculation’s proclaimed success. Within the next decade, the number of paralytic polio cases dropped drastically from more than 45,000 cases reported in 1953, to just 910 in 1962. Salk’s vaccine represented a major medical breakthrough that resulted in a complete eradication of the disease in the United States by 1979. Salk never patented nor profited from his vaccine, believing that it belonged to the people, remarking, “Could you patent the sun?”


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.