Polio and The Salk Vaccine

Pop singers Judy Collins, Neil Young (age 5), Donovan, and Joni Mitchell (age 9) had polio in the early 1950s. (McKay, p. 344.) As a Canadian singer-songwriter and polio survivor Joni Mitchell has put it: “Polio is the disease that eats muscles. If it eats the muscle of your heart, it kills you; if it eats the muscles that control the flexing of your lungs, you end up in an iron lung; if it eats the muscle of your leg, it withers, or of your arm, it withers. In my case, it ate muscles in my back – the same thing happened with Neil Young. I had to learn to stand [again], and then to walk. (quoted in Matteo “Popular Music” (2009) Volume 28/3. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009, pp. 341–365; ‘Crippled with Nerves’: Popular Music and Polio, g.a.mckay@salford.ac.uk ) In Young’s case, as his father wrote at the time, “overnight the child moved like a mechanical man, jerkily, holding his head in a tense position” (quoted in Rutty 1988, pp. 8–9). Home after a short period of hospital isolation, Neil told his father ‘Polio is the worst cold there is’ (quoted in ibid., p. 15). Young’s polio impairment consists of ‘a slight limp evident when he walks’ (ibid., p. 25, n. 92).

Polio, a disease that has affected humanity throughout recorded history, attacks the nervous system and can cause varying degrees of paralysis. Since the virus is easily transmitted, epidemics were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century. The first major polio epidemic in the United States occurred in Vermont in the summer of 1894, and by the 20th century thousands were affected every year. By the 1950s, polio had become one of the most serious communicable diseases among children in the United States. The disease appeared to have a predilection for infants and children and occurred mostly in the summer. Summer was known as “polio season.” Paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio, because it can lead to permanent disability and death. Between 2 and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from poliovirus infection die, because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe.

Though not as devastating as the plague or influenza, poliomyelitis was a highly contagious disease that emerged in terrifying outbreaks and seemed impossible to stop. Attacking the nerve cells and sometimes the central nervous system, polio caused muscle deterioration, paralysis and even death. Even as medicine vastly improved in the first half of the 20th century in the Western world, polio still struck, affecting mostly children but sometimes adults as well. The most famous victim of a 1921 outbreak in America was future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then a young politician. The disease spread quickly, leaving his legs permanently paralyzed.

Polio epidemics in New York in 1916, Los Angeles in 1934, Berlin in 1947, and Copenhagen in 1952 caused panic among local populations. As Marc Shell writes in Polio and its Aftermath, ‘For seventy years, polio traumatized the world … An American president suffered from its paralyzing effects. So did sixty million other people worldwide. Even when polio did not kill its victims outright, it often crippled them for life. The survivors were the visible reminder of polio’s ever-increasing power to slay, maim, and deform … No one knew what caused the disease, and there was no cure’ (Shell 2005, p. 1).

In 1952, the worst polio outbreak in American history infected 58,000 people, killing more than 3,000 and paralyzing 21,000 — the majority of them children. As Time reported, “Parents were haunted by the stories of children stricken suddenly by the telltale cramps and fever. Public swimming pools were deserted for fear of contagion. And year after year polio delivered thousands of people into hospitals and wheelchairs, or into the nightmarish canisters called iron lungs.” Hospitals set up special units with iron lung machines to keep polio victims alive. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together to avoid spreading the disease. Insurance companies started selling polio insurance for newborns.

In the late 1940s, the March of Dimes, a grassroots organization founded with President Roosevelt’s help to find a way to defend against polio, enlisted Dr. Jonas Salk, head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Salk found that polio had as many as 125 strains of three basic types, and that an effective vaccine needed to combat all three. By growing samples of the polio virus and then deactivating, or “killing” them by adding a chemical called formalin, Salk developed his vaccine, which was able to immunize without infecting the patient.

In 1954 a massive controlled field trial was launched, sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Almost two million U.S. children between the ages of six and nine from 44 states participated. In some areas of the country half of these “Polio Pioneers” received the vaccine, while half received a placebo. In other areas of the country children who did not receive any vaccine were carefully observed. On April 12, 1955, Thomas Francis, Salk’s mentor and the director of the trial, reported that the vaccine was safe, potent, and 90% effective in protecting against paralytic poliomyelitis. Soon after Salk’s vaccine was licensed in 1955, children’s vaccination campaigns were launched.

In the U.S,  a mass immunization campaign was promoted by the March of Dimes. Common citizens would donate dimes, often in movie theaters, to support polio research. In the first year the March of Dimes raised almost two million dollars. Seven years later the fundraising exceeded eighteen million dollars. New polio cases dropped to under 6,000 in 1957, the first year after the vaccine was widely available. In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910. Hailed as a miracle worker, Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible. A couple of years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral form of the vaccine. The oral vaccine is in standard use today since it is easier to administer and is more effective than the Salk vaccine.

“The Body Blow is a “radio ballad,” a complete album about an hour in length about the psychology of pain, about people suffering from polio. It was ‘a journey into the minds of two partially and three totally disabled people – all stricken with polio.’ The radio ballad is an audio documentary format created by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Charles Parker in 1958. It combines four elements of sound: songs, instrumental music, sound effects, and, most importantly, the recorded voices of those who are the subjects of the documentary. The latter element was revolutionary; previous radio documentaries had used either professional voice actors or prepared scripts. The “radio ballad” can be heard at https://youtu.be/zK65LJvUCCU .

“Patent the Sun (Song for Jonas Salk),” Joey McGowan expresses the freedom of being polio free. https://youtu.be/cxL8oD1_7F0

Thank you, Jonas.

I’m walking with mommy in Weehawken

Down to the counter at the five and ten

Vanilla egg cream

In the 1950s

Polio free


Thank you, Jonas.

Mommies with babies in Pigeon Park

Boys and girls on swings and slides

Playing just like me

In the 1950s

Polio free


He said you cannot patent the sun

You cannot patent the sun

It belongs to everyone

Here’s a gift to the World

Lungs of iron

And Legs of gold


Thank you, Jonas

Parades of children in a March of Dimes

From Pittsburgh with FDR Through the century

From the 1950s

Polio free


He said you cannot patent the sun You cannot patent the sun

It belongs to everyone


Thank You Jonas

I’m walking with Mommy in Weehawken

“Through the Centuries, A Song to Help End Polio,” Mashville, (Rotary International was involved in a continuing effort to completely eradicate polio worldwide. A band called Mashville with members from the Rotary Club of Canterbury Sunrise in D1120 (England) released their first album which contains a special track called ‘Through the Centuries’ all about Rotary and its fight for the eradication of Polio. Through Rotary’s efforts Polio has been 99% eradicated in the world and a final push is on to finish the task.) https://youtu.be/AgA7FGct3uw

From the days of our fathers

And their fathers before

You knew the hurt you created

And the pain they endured

Young lives were afflicted

Kids blighted, no warning

You chose with no mercy

Struck with stealth any morning


Chorus: We fought you through the centuries

We fought you through the wars

We fought you through the modern age

We’ll fight till death is yours

Salk and Sabin struck back

With the armour of skill

Rotarian legions

Raised the money to kill

Perseverance and anger

Dedication and care

Thousands of warriors ….

You need to be scared




Your evil is weakening

You’re back on the ropes

We got plenty of work to do

But we can now live in hope

No more pain for the lame

No more darkness for the blind

We’ll erase you forever

Your plague for mankind


(Fade out to instrumental…)


“Polio,” Staff Benda Bilili, (Staff Benda Bilili are a group of street musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They used to live around the grounds of the zoo in the country’s capital city, Kinshasa, and play music which is rooted in soukous, with elements of old-school rhythm and blues and reggae. The song is in the native tongue with English subtitles, https://youtu.be/KzCUcO_d1qI

I was born as a strong man but polio crippled me
Look at me today, I’m screwed into my tricycle
I have become the man with the canes
The hell with those crutches!

Parents, please go to the vaccination center
Get your babies vaccinated against polio
Please save them from that curse

My parents had the good idea to register me for school
Look at me now: I’m a well-educated person
Which enables me to work and support my family

Parents please don’t neglect your children
The one who is disabled is no different from the others
(Why should he?)
Treat all your children without discrimination
(Don’t throw anyone on the side)
Who among them will help you when you’re in need?
God only knows who