The Doctor Who Relieved a Nation

May 6, 2014
Greg Kelly

The tale of one physician's decade-long research to find a vaccine for polio and the impact it had on the country at the height of the polio epidemic.

“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

—Jonas Salk, MD

I’m a student of history—always in search of more. So, a few years ago it fell to me to write a book about the history of my hometown, Monmouth Beach, NJ. After 10 years of reading and research, the book was completed in 2009.

My physician-father was a resident of that shore community from 1954 until his retirement in 1993. In the process of doing original research through borough historical records, I learned my dad played a meaningful healthcare role in our town (and in history).

Doctor delivers

In 1957, my father was commended by our borough’s Board of Commissioners for inoculating every pre-school child in his town with the polio vaccine. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the polio vaccine. That illness was terrifying stuff in those days and in the early 1950s, the United States was suffering through a deadly polio epidemic. Upwards of 60,000 cases of the disease were reported and there were more than 3,000 deaths from the illness.

In 1952, the number of cases more than doubled from the previous year and national health officials were predicting a devastating polio epidemic in the 1950s. Naturally, America’s parents lived with constant fear and anxiety that their young children would be stricken with the crippling disease poliomyelitis, or polio.

To the rescue

In April 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk came to the rescue—announcing the start of a field trial for his polio vaccine (he, his wife, and 3 children were among the first to be vaccinated). The treatment proved successful as those vaccinated (called “polio pioneers”) received the needed protection.

Some Americans will recall that this breakthrough probably caused more relief and excitement than any other modern medical development. The vaccine was hailed as one of the greatest events in the history of medicine. And while Salk became instantly world-famous, his work was really the product of a decade’s worth of painstaking research. A superlative humanitarian, Salk even declined a patent on the vaccine.

With the vaccination up to 90% effective, the flood of polio cases shrank to a trickle and eventually disappeared, saving the lives of thousands of children and preventing paralysis in hundreds of thousands more. Salk, who was born in New York City (4 years before my dad), died in June 1995 at the age of 80, still doing medical research.

In the end, it seemed parents in my town weren’t much impressed with my dad’s efforts, though. In 1966, he ran for the town’s board of education (he didn’t have enough to do as a busy doctor and father of 8?). Not being a member of the town clique, however, he lost.

“I got clobbered,” my told me.