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Jonas Salk's Polio Vaccine Trials Would Be Hard To Repeat Today


A lethal disease threatening the American public, a race against time to prevent its spread - this is not the story of Ebola, but of the fight against polio 60 years ago. It was led by Dr. Jonas Salk. He was a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, who made it his life's work to develop and perfect the vaccine against polio. In 1954, an unprecedented trial began to test Salk's vaccine.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Citizens of Protection, Kansas are really getting protection. The tots are the first to face the Salk vaccine needle. This miss isn't quite sure about the whole thing but, well, it really wasn't so bad.

SIEGEL: Across the country, almost two million schoolchildren took part in the trial. I was one of them at P.S. 61 in Lower Manhattan. Dr. Jonas Salk was born 100 years ago today. And so today, we're going to look back at that polio vaccine trial with Dr. David Oshinsky, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "Polio: An American Story." Welcome.


SIEGEL: We're talking at a time when trials for potential Ebola vaccines are just getting started. So take us back to 1954, as far as how a national vaccine trial would be designed. It would be very different in those days.

OSHINSKY: It was, there were very few government restrictions. It basically was parental consent, meaning a parent would just sign a consent form. And I think that the interesting thing you mentioned, there were close to two million children taken place. That would never happen today. I think parents at that time had a much greater sense of risk versus reward. They saw polio every summer, it came like the plague. You know, thousands of children would be crippled. You'd see wheelchairs and iron lungs and leg braces and children who died of polio. And therefore there was really a sense among parents, who saw this every single summer, that a vaccine had to be the savior and actually pushed their kids into line to take his - what was called a double-blind study, meaning that neither the child nor the caregiver knew whether the child was getting a look-alike placebo or the vaccine.

SIEGEL: Yes, I remember this. I remember lining up at the elementary school outside the library where we get the shot, and we'd all be there. We didn't know if we'd be getting - we said polio vaccine or sugar water, is what we said.

OSHINSKY: I think that's exactly correct.

SIEGEL: And I guess I discovered that I must have had the real thing because I didn't have to go back and get the real thing the next year after that.

OSHINSKY: That is correct. If you get the real vaccine you were done. You were taken care of.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine two million children today taking part in a test of a vaccine.

OSHINSKY: No, it would be - with the anti-vaccine movement today and suspicion, that would be quite impossible. Indeed, in some way, vaccines are a product - the problem is a product of their own success. They work so well that you no longer see the disease itself. We haven't seen a case of polio in the United States in close to 30 years, and that's because we vaccinate.

SIEGEL: Gives us a sense of the impact that the successful testing of the Salk vaccine had on Jonas Salk.

OSHINSKY: Well, Jonas Salk was always seen in the vaccine community as the people's scientist, and Albert Sabin was seen as the scientist's scientist. And Jonas Salk therefore was the white knight in the lab coat who would come out and tell us that the vaccine was almost ready and it was going to be successful and nobody should be worried about it. And he was a great spokesperson for it. What I think is interesting though is that once the vaccine comes out there are many people in the virology community who believed incorrectly, that it was an inferior vaccine because it didn't create a natural infection in the body. And Jonas Salk was kind of blackballed by the virology community. If you can believe it, it's scandalous. He is the only major polio researcher never to have been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. It's a scandal, but he was. Indeed, I think he paid a price for his celebrity.

SIEGEL: Dr. Oshinsky, thank you very much.

OSHINSKY: My pleasure, thank you. Good talking to you.

SIEGEL: We're talking with David Oshinsky, author of "Polio: An American Story," on, this, the centennial of the birth of Dr. Jonas Salk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.