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In the Time of Polio

From an ancient Egyptian stone carving to eradication in one hemisphere, polio has a long history.

By Wendy Orent // Spring 2006

1580-1350 B.C.

An Egyptian stone carving is made of a priest with a shriveled leg and a dropped foot, perhaps the earliest depiction of polio.


The first detailed clinical monograph of polio is written by the German orthopedist Jacob von Heine, who deduces that the seat of paralysis must be the patient’s spinal cord.


Eye of Science/Photo Researchers Inc.


Frank Macfarlane Burnet and Annie Jean MacNamara identify three immunologically distinct strains of poliovirus: types 1, 2 and 3.


Clinical trials for two vaccines - one killed (inactivated), the other live (attenuated) - prove disastrous. But the Brodie-Park killed strain serves as a prototype for the effective Salk vaccine.

polio season

The Granger Collection


During the worst polio year in the United States, more than 57,000 children are paralyzed or die. No one knows why the rate keeps steadily rising or why the “polio season” now extends from Memorial Day through October.

Jonas Salk

(c) 2006 USPS (used with permission, all rights reserved)


A team at the University of Pittsburgh, led by Jonas E. Salk, successfully conducts field trials of their killed vaccine strain. In 1955, the vaccine is approved, and millions of doses are administered that year.


The U.S. Public Health Service endorses Albert Sabin’s live vaccine after large-scale immunizations in Eastern Europe. The oral vaccine is easier to administer than Salk’s and proves effective in controlling infections over wide areas.

Polio-eradication campaign

C. Priest & M. Clarke/Science Photo Library


The World Health Assembly announces the polio- eradication campaign, resolving to eliminate the disease by the end of 2000 using Sabin’s oral vaccine.


The Western Hemisphere is certified polio-free, though vaccine-derived poliovirus will later be found circulating in Hispaniola and the United States.


Still a Scourge

Polio sufferers

After crippling millions worldwide, polio may soon be wiped out. But to the last, the virus is proving an elusive, stubborn foe.

Will Polio’s Threat Always Linger?

Since scientists recreated the poliovirus from scratch in 2002, some wonder whether the disease can ever be eradicated.

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