On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk made a momentous announcement: He had invented a vaccine that would prevent a child from catching one of the most feared contagions at the time, poliomyelitis.
Today, with polio virtually unknown in the West (the last case in the U.S. occurred in 1979) it is difficult to imagine the panic that took place half a century ago when a child was diagnosed with the disease. Playmates were forbidden to visit. A swimming pool he used would be empty in the middle of the summer. Parents would worry for weeks that one of their children might become crippled for life.
I witnessed the awful consequences of the disease because a family friend was infected in childhood. For the rest of her life, Eleanor was forced to don a metal harness every morning. There was a metal girdle around her waist, with steel braces running down each leg, ending in a pair of heavy black shoes.
Wearing this device and using crutches, Ellie could make her way slowly from room to room. Without it, she was totally immobile. But Ellie was determined to have as normal a life as possible. She and her husband Ken adopted two children and did everything families did back then—go on picnics, play in the pool, participate in the PTA. In the 50-some years I knew Ellie Hawthorne, I never heard her complain about her infirmity.
Thinking back on what she endured it seems almost miraculous that, thanks to the pioneering work of Salk, Dr. Albert Sabin and their colleagues, most children today will never see a case of polio, much less be afflicted by it.
Salk refused to patent his discovery or receive any money for it. He insisted that, “like the sun,” the vaccine should be free to everyone.