That message, proclaimed by newspaper headlines 25 years ago this month, announced one of the landmark breakthroughs in medical history.
“The vaccine works.” Those were the first words spoken April 12, 1955 at Ann Arbor, Mich., where the results of a scientific evaluation of mass testing among more than l,800,000 children were announced.
The speaker was Dr. Thomas francis Jr., professor of immunology at University of Michigan who directed the study of results. His 133-page report indicated the vaccine was 80 to 100 percent effective against the paralytic of fatal type of poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis).
Simultaneously, Dr. Jonas E. Salk. professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and creator of the vaccine, disclosed that enough of the substance would be available to raise from a previously estimated 38 million to 57 million the number of children who could be protected that summer.
The Health, Education and Welfare Department, newly established under President Dwight Eisenhower, immediately authorized manufacture at the vaccine.
The American Medical Association hailed the Salk “killed virus” vaccine development as “one of the greatest events in the history of medicine.”
Today it is still remembered as a monumental milestone. Dr. Elvera Ehrenfeld, professor of cellular-viral-molecular bioloby at University of Utah’s College of Medicine in Sale lake City, says the Salk breakthrough and subsequent developments led to “virtual elimination of polio among the vaccinated populations” and served as a model for research and methodology for control of other diseases such as measles and mumps.
Dr. Ehrenfeld also paid tribute to Dr. Albert B. Sabin of University of Cincinnati, another American scientist who later developed the Sabin “live virus” polio vaccine, taken orally and extensively used today.
She noted that the intense U.S. effort to develop an anti-polio vaccine was, at least in part a political decision, no doubt stemming from the fact that a previous American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, struggled with the crippling effects of the disease for some 14 years of his life.
Roosevelt’s widow Eleanor, interviewed on the day of the breakthrough announcement, had warm praise for the Salk vaccine success, saying: “This should be a tremendous comfort to parents everywhere.”
In development of the vaccine, Dr. Salk served as the leader of a group of scientists at University of Pittsburgh. building on the work of scientists who had made earlier discoveries.
Salk tried his vaccines on chimpanzees and monkeys. Some antibodies were found in the blood, indicating monkeys could be protected. A way was found to kill the polio virus with formaldehyde without destroying its ability to bring about formation of antibodies in the blood.
Now the vaccine was safe to use on human beings Materials know as “adjuvants” were added to the vaccine to make it work better. “Bouster” shots were found to he effective and the proper time intervals between injections were worked out. Many persons in a number of research laboratories helped in producing the vaccine, but Dr. Salk was recognized as the leader. He received a Congressional award in 1955.