Public Release: 

Pitt marks 50th anniversary of its Salk polio vaccine with reunion, scientific symposium

Events for April 10 - 12 bring to Pitt film/TV/stage legend Mickey Rooney, Salk family, members of Salk's research team, first children to receive shots and other distinguished guests

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

PITTSBURGH, March 29 - The development of the Salk polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh represents one of the most important milestones in medical history. To commemorate the achievements of Jonas Salk, M.D., and his team of Pitt researchers and pay tribute to the people of the Pittsburgh community whose involvement was critical to the success of the endeavor, the University is hosting two events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the April 12, 1955, announcement that declared the vaccine "safe, effective and potent" and ushered in a new era of hope that polio could be conquered.

A community celebration on April 10 will recognize Pittsburgh's own and the nation's first "Polio Pioneers" - the polio victims, who, in 1953, were the first to receive the vaccine; the 15,000, mostly school children, who rolled up their sleeves (some with tearful reluctance) to be inoculated in local field trials; and the many medical professionals, laboratory staff, caregivers and volunteers who during those years devoted their lives to the effort. Together, their involvement paved the way for the largest U.S. clinical trial ever to be conducted, with 1.8 million children from 44 states taking part. Making a special appearance will be Mickey Rooney, who was one of Hollywood's most ardent champions for the March of Dimes (known then as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis or NFIP) and made passionate appeals to the American public to give their nickels and dimes to support polio research, a cause that was principally supported by the NFIP.

A two-day scientific symposium will feature Julius Youngner, Sc.D., distinguished service professor emeritus of molecular genetics and biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the only surviving scientist from Salk's core research team; and David L. Heymann, M.D., who leads the worldwide polio eradication effort for the World Health Organization. Other internationally recognized researchers and public health experts are included on the program for the April 11 and 12 symposium, "Remembering Polio: The History and Future of Vaccine Development."

In some ways, the fear of polio was as terrifying as the disease itself, with parents overprotecting their children and communities shutting down public venues. When the epidemic in the United States peaked in 1952, polio had struck nearly 58,000 people--mainly children and young adults. The most critically ill were confined to a mechanical ventilator known as an iron lung, robbed of their ability to breathe on their own. Others escaped on crutches, crippled but not paralyzed. Panic was pandemic. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the terror that polio caused at the time.

The initial breakthrough that led to the eventual eradication of polio throughout most of the world is credited to Dr. Salk and his Pitt team of researchers, who developed the first polio vaccine. It was Salk's mentor, Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan, who led the nationwide clinical trial of the vaccine that began April 26, 1954, and ended with the greatly anticipated announcement of its results on April 12 the next year. The day was heralded by dramatic headlines, ringing church bells and celebrations that spilled into the streets.

Following is additional information about each event.
Remembering Polio: A Tribute to Pittsburgh's Own Polio Pioneers
Sunday, April 10, 5 - 7 p.m., University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning Commons Room

Stacy Smith, KDKA-TV anchor and polio survivor, will emcee the event that features Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney; Tenley Albright, M.D., a Harvard University surgeon and researcher who, despite a childhood bout with polio, went on to become a champion figure skater and, in the 1956 Olympics, the first American woman to win a gold medal in her sport; Peter L. Salk, M.D., vice president and scientific director of the Jonas Salk Foundation and the eldest of Salk's three sons, all of whom received one of the earliest test vaccines; John Troan, former editor of the Pittsburgh Press, who as a medical reporter, closely followed the developments made in the Pitt lab; and polio survivor James Sarkett, whose strain of the virus, erroneously labeled as the "Saukett strain," was one of three used in the Salk vaccine. Those attending the event will have an opportunity to share their stories about their roles in making medical history with videographers as part of the University's effort to document that important time. Already, the University has heard from hundreds of people who have provided memories of that frightful time when polio lurked in every neighborhood, especially during the summer months. Among those who have submitted remembrances on a special web site ( or sent in letters and memorabilia are children who participated in the pilot trials at local schools, who recall their fear of the long needles but their greater fear of the disease the vaccine was designed to prevent. Children not as lucky, who got polio and had been confined to hospital wards, some in total isolation from their parents, or handicapped by leg braces until they learned to walk again, have shared longer stories, including how they now cope with the effects of post-polio syndrome. Friends, neighbors and colleagues of Salk and his research team also have come forward, each providing a glimpse of what it was like to participate in medical history.

Remembering Polio: The History and Future of Vaccine Development
Monday, April 11 and Tuesday, April 12, Alumni Hall Auditorium

Speakers and topics for each day are as follows. (See for exact times and biographical information on the speakers.)

April 11

  • Julius S. Youngner, Sc.D. (University of Pittsburgh) - Conquering Polio: A View from the Inside
  • Charles R. Rinaldo, Jr., Ph.D. (University of Pittsburgh) - Pitt's First Salvo in the War on Polio: The Hammon Gamma Globulin Field Trials, 1951-53
  • Paul A. Offit, M.D. (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia) - The Cutter Incident: Lessons from the Past
  • Gary J. Nabel, M.D., Ph.D. (National Institutes of Health) - Polio as Prologue to Vaccines of the Future: Lessons for an AIDS Vaccine
  • John B. Robbins, M.D. (National Institutes of Health) - A Legacy of the Salk Polio Vaccine: How Vaccines Exert Their Action
  • Matthias Gromeier, M.D. (Duke University) - Exploiting Poliovirus for the Treatment of Cerebral Malignancy

This day also will include a book signing by David M. Oshinsky, Ph.D., author of Polio: An American Story, and George Littlefield Professor of American History at the University of Texas, Austin. (Dr. Oshinsky is the keynote speaker at a private dinner that night.)

April 12

  • David L. Heymann, M.D. (World Health Organization) - Eradicating Polio - the Politics of a Global Public Good
  • Peter Salk, M.D. (Jonas Salk Foundation) - Memoirs of My Father: Personal Reflections on Jonas Salk
  • Robert A. Keegan (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); Heidi J. Larson, Ph.D. (UNICEF); Louis Piconi (Rotary International) - Fighting Polio One Child at a Time: Panel Discussion
  • William Gruber, M.D. (Wyeth) - The Pharmaceutical Industry's Perspective on Vaccine Development: From Polio to Bioterrorism
  • Tara O'Toole, M.D., M.P.H. (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) - Disease as a Weapon: A new Challenge for the 21st Century

This day also will include a moment of remembrance and re-enactment of the April 12, 1955, announcement that the polio vaccine was ready for widespread use with John Troan, former reporter and editor for the Pittsburgh Press, and the dedication of an historical marker honoring the Salk team.

Both events are free and open to the public. To best accommodate guests, the University is requesting those wishing to attend the community celebration to RSVP by calling 1-800-258-7488. Advance online registration for the symposium is encouraged. More information about both events and online registration can be found at


NOTE TO EDITORS: Media may cover all events, including the private dinner featuring David Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story. To arrange interviews with Oshinsky, polio survivors, trial participants or guests and speakers for the community event and symposium, please contact Lisa Rossi at 412-647-3555. Additional background information is available at

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