On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas E. Salk announced on CBS radio that he had developed a vaccine for the scourge of polio. It was an electrifying moment in American science, and it generated waves of relief throughout the country.
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It's hard to overestimate the terror that polio engendered in Americans in the early-to-mid 20th century. Since the first U.S. epidemic in 1894, it had crippled thousands of people every year and was often fatal. Children were at particular risk, although Franklin D. Roosevelt had contracted the disease at age 39, which left him partially paralyzed the rest of his life.
In the early part of the 20th century no one knew how it spread. During epidemics in 1914 and 1919, medical professionals had gone door-to-door seeking answers, but those answers were slow in coming. The 1952 epidemic was the worst on record, striking 58,000 Americans, most of them under 18 years of age, killing more than 3,000 and leaving some 26,000 with some level of paralysis. Americans feared polio more than anything but the atomic bomb, one survey showed.
The disease didn't slow Roosevelt's march to the White House, however. And as president, it helped inspire him to experiment with new forms of political communication.
Beginning in 1934, on the occasion of his birthday, Roosevelt raised money for research efforts into polio and other childhood diseases from wealthy donors at Presidential Birthday Balls for Crippled Children. But he realized that he could reach millions, instead of mere hundreds, of potential donors by taking to the airwaves.
And so, in the autumn of 1937, FDR announced the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and he turned to friends in Hollywood to devise a nationwide appeal. On Nov. 22, 1937, the group met at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the offices of John Considine, to discuss the campaign. Among those present was Eddie Cantor, a former vaudevillian who was a popular comedian, actor, and singer. It was Cantor who suggested that the national radio programs be asked to donate 30 seconds of their time, Cantor who suggested that the donations be sent directly to the White House, and Cantor who ad-libbed, "We could call it the ‘March of Dimes.'"
This was a pun, immediately recognizable to the men in the room, based on a popular newsreel called "The March of Time." But Cantor's quip was too catchy to forget and by the time the NFIF was even incorporated, it was destined to be known by the other name. The first March of Dimes appeals were aired in late January 1938.
"The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our president that they are with him in this battle against this disease," Cantor proclaimed. "Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. However, it takes only ten dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000."
That estimate proved conservative. By the president's birthday -- Jan. 30 -- more than two-and-a-half million dimes had been sent to the White House. Roosevelt took to the airwaves himself to express gratitude.
"It is glorious to have one's birthday associated with a work like this," he said. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. And that kinship, which human suffering evokes, is perhaps the closest of all, for we know that those who work to help the suffering find true spiritual fellowship in that labor of love."
After the United States was immersed in world war, FDR used the occasion to strike a more nationalist tone. He made his last of the annual March of Dimes appeals on Jan. 30, 1945, his final birthday, and asked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to read it to their fellow Americans. By April, Franklin Roosevelt was dead. But the March of Dimes lived on. Four years later, former Roosevelt law partner Basil O'Connor used the money that had been raised to fund promising research being done by a brilliant University of Pittsburgh virologist. His name was Jonas Salk.
As a young physician, Jonas E. Salk worked on the vaccines that protected U.S. soldiers and sailors in World War II from the deadly flu that had caused such heartbreak and havoc in the First World War. In 1947, he accepted an appointment at the University of Pittsburgh medical school, where he was contacted by Harry Weaver, head of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Would Dr. Salk take aim at polio, he was asked, the disease that had put Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair as an adult but which usually struck children?
The answer was yes; Salk signed on for the fight. The media covered his progress and the American people rooted for him every step of the way. He was the Anthony Fauci of his day -- and then some: A 1954 Gallup Poll showed that more Americans knew about the polio field tests Dr. Salk was conducting than could provide the full name of the president. (That was something of a trick question, as Americans knew the popular Dwight David Eisenhower as "Ike.")
On Feb. 23, 1954, the attention of parents around the world was riveted on Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood. In that cramped school gymnasium, 137 youngsters lined up to receive injections of the serum that would become the vaccine. Participation was a matter of choice -- they and their parents were among 5,000 Pittsburgh volunteers -- but the field test was a success and the following year 9 million such vaccines were purchased by the NFIP. Soon it would be delivered orally, in sugar cubes, which kids lined up to take happily.
Jonas Salk never personally profited from his vaccine, a decision he made consciously. But he was honored by presidents and Congress; his name was praised by parents around the world. Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977; Ronald Reagan declared May 6, 1985 "Jonas Salk Day."
As we anxiously await a vaccine for COVID-19, Americans and our fellow citizens of the world are confident that we won't have to wait as long as we did for protection from polio. Preventative medicine has been revolutionized, in part because of the success Salk and his lab partners had in finding a cure for polio. The ethos and economics of medicine has changed, too. The thalidomide disaster showed the need for extensive testing of new therapies. And few researchers today would do what Jonas Salk did -- he tested his polio vaccine on himself and his own family.
But Salk's selflessness was genuine. For one thing, neither he nor Albert Sabin, who developed the oral version of the vaccine, ever even patented their inventions. Salk had originally gone to college to study law, and what he cared about most intensely was his fellow man. In a 1991 interview, four years before he died, Salk explained that as a young man he was never drawn to science, per se.
"I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like," he said. "That's what motivates me."
Salk revealed this humanistic side in 1977, at the ceremony in the White House complex where, along with the widow and son of Martin Luther King Jr., he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jimmy Carter spoke that afternoon of growing up in Georgia at a time of twin plagues: The first was racism and the second polio, a disease that knew no color barriers.
"Today I have chosen to honor two great men," the president said, "one who has alleviated suffering and despair in the field of health, and one who has chosen to alleviate suffering and despair in the field of human freedom."
These themes were on Salk's mind, too, as he revealed when Carter asked him to speak.
"I am deeply moved to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom along with Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and work contributed so richly to the ultimate freedoms we seek -- freedom from human exploitation and oppression," Salk said. "Our Founding Fathers spoke about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But without freedom from oppression and from disease, the pursuit of happiness has little meaning."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.