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
Contact: Michele Kling
March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation