How U.S. schools proved Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was safe

When the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration approved using Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines final December—a yr after the coronavirus was first recognized in Wuhan, China—it was a dramatic piece of excellent information after one of the vital disruptive years the nation has ever skilled.

Now contemplate the joys folks felt in April 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine was formally declared to be “safe, efficient, and potent.” That got here greater than 60 years after the primary recognized polio outbreak within the U.S., which passed off in rural Rutland County, Vermont in 1894. It killed 18—principally youngsters beneath the age of 12–and left 123 completely paralyzed.

From there, polio turned an everlasting, mysterious scourge. In 1916, it hit New York Metropolis, killing 2,343 out of a complete of 6,000 nationwide that yr. Within the Nineteen Forties and early Fifties, the variety of incidents within the U.S. grew eightfold, reaching 37 per 100,000 inhabitants by 1952. The truth that youngsters had been most vulnerable to the illness made it solely extra terrifying.


The Salk vaccine was authorized solely after going by way of the biggest scientific trial in historical past. Fairly than being a authorities challenge, this take a look at was overseen and paid for by a nonprofit group based by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938: The Nationwide Basis for Childish Paralysis, higher generally known as the March of Dimes. (Roosevelt himself had contracted polio on the unusually superior age of 39.) Greater than 1.3 million youngsters participated; some bought both the vaccine, which required three photographs over a five-week interval, or a placebo, whereas others underwent statement for polio.

The one logical approach to attain so many youngsters was by way of schools. The outcome was an unprecedented nationwide effort constructed atop public-education infrastructure. Within the spring of 1954, college boards, principals, lecturers, college nurses, and even PTAs all joined the trigger, together with volunteers corresponding to “classroom moms.”

After all, schools had lengthy performed a task within the U.S. well being system, together with administering vaccines for sicknesses corresponding to smallpox and diphtheria. However nothing ready them for the polio trial, which concerned not a vaccine already recognized to be safe and efficient however one nonetheless within the means of being validated. David M. Oshinsky, creator of Polio: An American Story, quoted the March of Dimes’s Melvin Glasser as saying that the group concluded that the enterprise required the cooperation of 14,000 principals and 50,000 lecturers.

This extremely coordinated enterprise was a wildly profitable, crucial step within the conflict towards polio. Right this moment, with information {that a} examine has proven Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to be 100% effective for kids 12 to 15—and proof that a meaningful minority of parents are still hesitant about allowing their children to be vaccinated—it’s price revisiting what went so proper 67 years in the past.

Getting college techniques on board

For the March of Dimes and others concerned in launching the polio vaccine trial, the first step was securing the approval of the native officers who oversaw the schools whose college students would participate. Such educators tended to see participation as an act of patriotism as a lot as a medical experiment. In pledging its assist, as an example, Lincoln, Nebraska’s Board of Training and college administration referred to as the trial “a novel academic alternative” and declared that it will “carry to our youngsters not solely better understanding of the nation’s combat towards this illness, however will add to their sense of non-public pleasure and accomplishment. On this respect, it may be a really actual issue within the growth of excellent citizenship.”

In Akron, Ohio, the college board voted 6-0 to proceed as a part of the trial. The Akron Beacon Journal reported that just one board member, Willard Seiberling, expressed any warning—and that was over the truth that some college students would obtain a placebo: “Why can’t all the kids get the true factor as an alternative of half getting nugatory salt water?”

As April arrived, schools despatched consent varieties dwelling with college students for his or her mother and father to signal.

The subsequent activity—securing permission from mother and father for his or her youngsters to participate within the trial—was equally necessary and much more fraught. Right here too, current academic infrastructure was important. Native PTAs held conferences at which college nurses and different medical professionals defined the vaccine and testing course of to oldsters, generally with assistance from motion pictures or movie strips.


Together with these official supplies and conferences, newspapers had been stuffed with what we’d now name FAQs. How many photographs would a baby get? Haven’t there been some medical consultants who’ve stated that this vaccine isn’t prepared for testing? Ought to mother and father have their little one examined for polio immunity earlier than permitting them to volunteer for this system? In answering these questions, the purpose was to knock down fears and myths that may stand in the way in which of the trial.

As April arrived, schools despatched consent varieties dwelling with college students for his or her mother and father to signal. They didn’t have a lot time to assume it over. In Pittsburgh, the varieties had been distributed on a Monday and had been to be returned by the next Wednesday, permitting for 2 nights of consideration. As Oshinsky notes, the shape had mother and father “request” that their little one take part within the trial quite than “give permission”— a significant phrase selection meant to make it sound like an honor that needs to be sought.

Regardless of the exhilaration over the likelihood that an finish to polio is likely to be imminent, the nation was jittery. And on April 4, Walter Winchell despatched some folks into outright panic. On his Sunday evening radio present, the famed columnist and broadcaster questioned the security of the trial, saying that the vaccine had killed monkeys in assessments and “could also be a killer.”

Winchell spoke simply as schools had been distributing consent varieties, and spooked many mother and father. Because of this, one estimate stated, 150,000 youngsters dropped out of the trial. Well being consultants shortly defended the security of the vaccine; Jonas Salk himself accused Winchell of taking part in “armchair scientist” and “sidewalk superintendent.” The pushback could have helped calm nerves: Per week after Winchell’s broadcast, Utah’s Ogden Normal-Examiner reported that many of the mother and father who had withdrawn their permission then reinstated it.

The trial begins

Even with out Winchell’s last-minute disruption, the trouble to persuade mother and father to signal the consent varieties would have been solely partially profitable. An American Journal of Public Well being report on the trial surveyed moms whose youngsters had been enrolled in 5 schools in a single Virginia county. Of 175 moms surveyed, 42 % declined to grant permission for his or her youngsters to take part within the trial. Greater than 80 % of those that refused stated that they harbored doubts in regards to the vaccine’s security.

Nonetheless, the trial went on. On April 26, 1954, at Franklin Sherman Elementary College’s gymnasium in McLean, Virginia, a significant second within the historical past of public well being occurred when 6-year-old Randall Kerr turned the primary individual to get injected with Salk’s vaccine as a part of the trial—not by happenstance, his second-grade trainer emphasised, however as a result of he was desirous to be on the entrance of the road. Randall expressed concern that the vaccine might by some means carry again his poison ivy. However as soon as Dr. Richard Mulvaney caught the needle in his arm, he stated it damage lower than his penicillin shot had. He was rewarded with a lollipop, and that was that.

{A photograph} documenting the occasion appeared on the entrance pages of newspapers throughout the nation. Within the weeks to return, the photographs of extra schoolchildren stored coming: Mark Knudsen of Salt Lake Metropolis, Gerry Midkiff of Oklahoma Metropolis, Nancy McIntyre of Kansas Metropolis, Missouri, Gary Caudle and Sandra Smith of Rochester New York, and numerous others.

Typically, these college students had been depicted calmly getting photographs at college. As soon as that they had gone by way of the complete three-shot course of, they had been usually proven smiling and brandishing “Polio Pioneer” pins and certificates, making their position within the trial official. It was an achievement a lot of them would always remember.

By the top of the college yr, the method of injecting college students with the vaccine or placebo was full and evaluation of the ensuing information started. That was a painstaking course of, and the physician who supervised the trial, Thomas Francis of the College of Michigan, didn’t rush his work.

Another growth stored the vaccine on the high of the information—and it was a tragic one.

Whereas native medical officers awaited the outcomes, they started making provisional plans for an enormous vaccine program, once more counting on college techniques as the first technique of distribution. As one native paper defined, “If [the vaccine] is licensed by the Govt—and nationwide well being officers appear sure will probably be—the three photographs will instantly be supplied to all first and second graders within the U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii.”

On April 12, 1955, Francis informed the world that the trial had been successful. The information was obtained with pleasure, pleasure, and aid—and schools throughout the nation started working, together with ones in areas that hadn’t participated within the trial. As an example, The Morning Name of Allentown Pennsylvania reported that 92 % of native first- and second-graders had been signed up without cost inoculations, which started on April 27.


Another growth stored the vaccine on the high of the information—and it was a tragic one. As youngsters had been being vaccinated at schools, medical doctors discovered that a few of them who’d obtained their photographs went on to contract polio anyhow, then unfold it to members of the family and neighbors. After these instances had been traced to vaccines produced by Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California, an investigation revealed that the corporate had by accident launched doses containing harmful reside viruses. Tens of 1000’s of individuals had been sickened, 200 had been paralyzed, and 10 died. Most had been schoolchildren.

The so-called “Cutter incident” briefly halted the vaccine program and shook mother and father’ confidence. However then it began up once more, regained the general public’s belief, and went on. Over the subsequent few years, because of the Salk vaccine, incidents of polio had been dramatically diminished, falling to fewer than 100 in 1960.

After a long time of front-page tales about polio, culminating within the drama of the Salk vaccine’s growth, testing, and distribution, the illness largely left headlines. As an alternative, it confirmed up principally in short objects corresponding to this 1958 announcement in a Minnesota paper:

The final Salk polio vaccine of the college yr shall be Wednesday on the St. Joseph college in St. Joseph. Time is 9 a.m.

College youngsters and pre-school youngsters needing first, second, or third photographs are invited to attend. Any teenager who had his second polio inoculation seven months in the past can obtain his third and ultimate shot right now,

St. John the Baptist college youngsters even have been invited to this clinic. An area doctor will administer the shot.

That polio was not a serious subject of reports was a triumph for humanity. The trial performed an unlimited position in making that attainable. The scholars who took half could have gotten the Polio Pioneer pins, however heroes all through the U.S. training system made all of it attainable—and their heavy lifting needs to be remembered and cherished.

Likewise, the present rollout of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines is a triumph of medical science. In contrast to polio, COVID-19 has principally spared youngsters, in order that they weren’t initially prioritized within the trials. However now that the Pfizer vaccine has been proven to be remarkably efficient on older youngsters, and with Dr. Fauci predicting that youthful youngsters shall be eligible early subsequent yr, as soon as once more, tens of millions of youngsters will line up for photographs—echoing the second within the Fifties that made such a distinction.

This text was additionally printed at, a nonprofit training information website.