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Salk Legacy

Jonas Salk: Ending Polio's Reign of Terror

At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio was killing or paralyzing more than a half-million people worldwide each year, especially children and young adults. The “lucky” survived to walk on crutches. Others were so paralyzed they could no longer breathe on their own. Iron lungs, the mechanical ventilators that sustained them, symbolized polio’s reign of terror.

In 1947, the University of Pittsburgh recruited Jonas Salk—an expert in influenza whose flu vaccine is still in use today—to develop a virus program at Pitt. For more than seven years, his team worked tirelessly to develop an effective killed-virus vaccine. One member of that team, Julius Youngner, is still an active member of Pitt's faculty, as a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry. 

The efforts of Pitt's polio research team culminated in the largest national controlled field trial in history. At the trial’s successful conclusion, the federal government approved the vaccine for the public on April 12, 1955, an action that Newsweek called “a summit moment in history.”

The development of the first polio vaccine is credited to Dr. Jonas Salk and his team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to his pioneering research with vaccines, Salk also studied and wrote about humanity’s role in the evolutionary scheme.

Jonas Salk

The Annual Salk Symposia at Pitt Public Health

Pitt Public Health hosts an annual symposium in Jonas Salk's honor. Each year's topic is chosen from among his varied interests based on its continuing importance to public health today.

In the news

Recent news and articles related to Jonas Salk and the legacy of his polio vaccine:

  • Today in History: April 12 (Third Photo)
    Source: Associated Press via WTOP-FM
    April 12, 2016
    … In 1955, the Salk vaccine against polio was declared safe and effective. … Photo caption: In this 1955 file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, describes how the vaccine is made and tested in his laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.
© 2017 by University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

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