Monday 13 June 2016

Polio: The Most Feared Disease of the 20th Century

American stamp issued circa 1999 courtesy

President Franklin D. Roosevelt walked with braces and crutches due to a life threatening battle with polio at age 39.  When I googled "Famous People who Have Had Polio" (  I was surprised to discover how long the list was:

  • Donald Sutherland (actor)
  • Jack Nicklaus (golfer)
  • Mia Farrow (actress)
  • Neil Young (musician)
  • Paul Martin (former Canadian Prime Minister)
  • Alan Alda (actor)
  • Dinah Shore (actress, singer)
  • Joni Mitchell (singer)
  • Sir Walter Scott (historical novelist)
  • Wilma Randolph (Olympic medallist "La Gazella Nera")
  • Ben Bradlee (Washington Post V.P.)
  • Marion Davies (movie star)
  • Frank Mars (chocolate bar maker)
  • Dorothea Lange (Great Depression-era photographer)
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer (physicist)
  • Tanaquil Le Clercq (ballet dancer)
  • Margarete Steiff (seamstress; founder of Steiff Teddy Bears)
These are just some of the names on the list.  Polio has afflicted millions of people worldwide, killing many, paralyzing others and leaving still others infertile.  

For those of us born after 1955, we have the benefit of the polio vaccine developped by Jonas Salk and a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.  As a precaution, Salk spent three years testing the vaccine on 1.8 million children in 44 different states from Maine to California.  Once considered safe, the vaccine was promoted by the March of Dimes in a massive inoculation campaign.  The annual number of cases decreased from 35,000 in 1953 to 5,600 by 1957.  As of 2014, there were only 359 reported cases of the disease.

Polio vaccine research was also conducted at the University of Toronto.  Canadians also participated in the trial vaccine in 1954.  However, in early 1955, it was discovered that 79 children who had received the vaccine still contracted polio:  Americans temporarily suspended its administration.  Meanwhile, in Canada, the Minister of Health, Paul Martin Sr., was particularly concerned about the lack of action.  He had battled polio back in 1907; his son, Paul Martin Jr., a future Prime Minister, battled the disease in 1946.  Martin Sr. pushed for the continuation of the mass vaccinations.  "Canada's confidence in the Salk vaccine renewed confidence around the world."  (

In 2005, Canada Post issued a stamp commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.

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