On March 26, 1953, American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announces on a national radio show that he has successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. In 1952—an epidemic year for polio—there were 58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease. For his work in helping to eradicate the disease, which is known as “infant paralysis” because it mainly affects children, Dr. Salk was celebrated as the great doctor-benefactor of his time.
READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine
Polio, a disease that affected humanity many times throughout recorded history, attacks the nervous system and can cause varying degrees of paralysis. Since the virus is easily transmitted, epidemics were commonplace in the first decades of the 20th century. The first major polio epidemic in the United States occurred in Vermont in the summer of 1894, and by the 20th century thousands were affected every year. In the first decades of the 20th century, treatments were limited to quarantines and the infamous “iron lung,” a metal coffin-like contraption that aided respiration. Although children, and especially infants, were among the worst affected, adults were also often afflicted, including future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1921 was stricken with polio at the age of 39 and was left partially paralyzed. Roosevelt later transformed his estate in Warm Springs, Georgia, into a recovery retreat for polio victims and was instrumental in raising funds for polio-related research and the treatment of polio patients.
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