Public Release: 

Salk polio vaccine celebrates 50th anniversary

March of Dimes Foundation

WHITE PLAINS, MARCH 28, 2005 -- Polio, one of the most dreaded epidemic diseases in history, went on its way to defeat 50 years ago with the announcement of the first safe and effective polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and supported by the March of Dimes.

The menace of death or paralysis from polio, a viral infection that affected mostly children, caused widespread fear and panic in the United States for decades. Sporadic and unpredictable outbreaks of the disease marked the lives of Americans during the first half of the 20th century. In 1952, the most severe polio epidemic year on record, more than 57,800 people were stricken with the disease. The images of youngsters in wheelchairs, on crutches, or in unwieldy "iron lungs" responsible for their every breath, haunted parents.

In the spring of 1954, the March of Dimes (then known formally as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis) conducted the largest clinical trial in U.S. history, testing the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk, M.D, on more than 1.8 million schoolchildren. Thousands of health care workers and other volunteers across the country participated to make it possible.

No wonder, then, that millions of anxious Americans held their breath with anticipation when the results of the field trials were announced on April 12, 1955. Under the penetrating gaze of hundreds of journalists and the glare of camera lights at the University of Michigan, it was announced that the vaccine worked -- polio now could be prevented. A huge outpouring of relief and joy greeted the news, and Dr. Salk became a national hero overnight.

Significance of the Anniversary

Many other medical advances were made possible by the wide net that was cast in funding the quest for a polio vaccine. "Most of the beginnings of molecular biology were financed by the March of Dimes as part of its study of viruses in search of a vaccine," said Victor A. McKusick, M.D., the noted medical geneticist.

Investments in research by the March of Dimes during the polio era that led directly to Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs included:

  • Linus C. Pauling, Ph.D., for identifying the first known human disease caused by a specific molecular abnormality -- sickle cell anemia.
  • John F. Enders, Ph.D., Thomas Weller, M.D., and Frederick Robbins, M.D., for developing a tissue culture method for growing polio virus.
  • James D. Watson, Ph.D., for identifying the double helix structure of DNA (with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins).
  • Max Delbrück, Ph.D., for showing how genes direct normal development and mutations cause abnormal development (with Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luria).

    Development of vaccines came to be seen by the public as a priority, and great strides were made in protecting unborn babies, children, and adults from many other deadly and disabling infectious diseases.

    The mobilization of the nation to raise money to fight polio introduced philanthropy and volunteerism into the daily lives of millions of Americans for the first time.

    From Polio to Prematurity: the March of Dimes Today

    Following the success of the polio vaccine, the March of Dimes turned its attention to birth defects and other infant health problems, including premature birth.

    "Today, polio is part of history, but volunteers remain committed to improving the health of our nation's children," says Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Just as dimes conquered polio, today's dollars are funding the search for answers about why premature birth and birth defects happen, and how they can be prevented."

    The March of Dimes major fundraiser, WalkAmerica, will take place the weekend of April 30-May 1 in over 1,100 communities nationwide. For more information, visit

    National supporters of the March of Dimes 50th Anniversary Salk Vaccine activities throughout 2005 are Merck, Sanofi-Pasteur, and BD.


    The March of Dimes is a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality. Founded in 1938, the March of Dimes funds programs of research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies and in 2003 launched a multi-year campaign to address the increasing rate of premature birth. For more information, visit the March of Dimes Web site at or its Spanish language Web site at

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