Medical Breakthrough Relieved a Nation

Physician's Money Digest, June15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 11

I'm now working on a book aboutthe history of my hometown,Monmouth Beach, NJ, which celebratesits centennial in 2006.

My father was a resident of that shorecommunity from 1955 until he retired in1993. In the process of doing originalresearch through borough historicalrecords, I learned that my dad played ameaningful health care role in our town.

Delivering Shots

In 1957, my father was commendedby our borough's Board of Commissionersfor inoculating every preschoolchild in Monmouth Beach with the poliovaccine. This year marks the 50th anniversaryof the polio vaccine. That illnesswas terrifying stuff in those days. In theearly 1950s, the United States was sufferingthrough a deadly polio epidemic.Upwards of 60,000 cases of the diseasewere reported and there were more than3000 deaths from the illness.

In 1952, the number of cases morethan doubled from the previous year, andnational health officials were predicting adevastating polio epidemic in the 1950s.America's parents lived with the constantfear and anxiety that their young childrenwould be stricken with the crippling diseasepoliomyelitis, or polio.

Aiding a Nation

In April 1954, Jonas Salk, MD, cameto the nation's rescue, announcing thestart of a field trial for his polio vaccine(he, his wife, and three children wereamong the first to be vaccinated). Thetreatment proved quite successful as thosevaccinated (called "polio pioneers")received the needed protection.

Older Americans will recall that thisbreakthrough probably caused morerelief and excitement than any othermodern medical development. The vaccinewas hailed as one of the greatestevents in the history of medicine. Andwhile Dr. Salk became instantly world-famous,his work was really the productof a decade's worth of painstakingresearch. A true humanitarian, Dr. Salkeven declined a patent on the vaccine.

With the vaccination up to 90% effective,the flood of polio cases shrank to atrickle and eventually disappeared, savingthe lives of thousands of children and preventingparalysis in hundreds of thousandsmore. Dr. Salk, who was born inNew York City in October 1914 (4 yearsbefore my dad), died in June 1995 at age80, still doing medical research.

I guess the parents in my town weren'tthat impressed with my dad's efforts,though. In 1966, he ran for the town'sboard of education (what, he didn't haveenough to do as a busy doctor, husband,and father of 8?). Not being a member ofthe town clique, however, he lost. "I gotclobbered," my dad told me. That's life.