Polio – The American Plague

JB Shreve
May 15, 2020 2 mins to read
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Polio is an ancient disease but in the 20th-century, few plagues better captured the American spirit than polio did.

Plagued: Humanity’s History with Disease, Outbreaks, and PandemicsPodcast Series – Part 6

This is part 6 in our series on the history of disease, outbreak, and pandemics podcast series. We look at the threat this disease posed to the 20th century, and the uniquely American approach to combatting it. Many of the things we take for granted today when it comes to fighting disease and tragedy, never existed before America’s 20th-century effort to eradicate polio.

Find this episode and the entire podcast series here. 

Polio Timeline

1789First clinical description of the disease by Michael Underwood.

1894Vermont experiences the first US outbreak of polio, 132 cases.

1908 – Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper identify the disease as a virus when they transfer it to a monkey.

1916 – Polio outbreak in the US with 27,000 cases, and 6,000 deaths. After 1916 there was an outbreak every summer in the US until the 1950s.

polio outbreak
The 1916 Polio Outbreak terrified parents and children.

1921 – Future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt is diagnosed with the disease.

1929 – The iron lung is developed to help victims with respiratory treatment.

iron lung polio timeline
The iron lung helped respiratory treatment for polio victims.

1934 – After Roosevelt becomes President annual “birthday balls” are held in his honor to raise money in the fight against the disease.

1938 – The charitable organization eventually known as “The March of Dimes” is launched to fight infantile paralysis.

1952 – Polio outbreak results in 60,000 children infected and more than 3,000 deaths.

1953 – Jonas Salk develops the “killed” polio vaccine.

jonas salk polio timeline

1954 – Nearly 2 million children participate in Salk’s vaccine field trials.

vaccinations polio timeline
A group of mothers with their children wait outside the Middlesex County Council Clinic for the first polio vaccinations to begin, 8th May 1956. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

1955 – After Salk’s vaccine, the disease in the US is reduced 85-90%

1955 – The Cutter Incident in which 200,000 children are given a defective Salk vaccine. Forty thousand. The Cutter Incident resulted in 40,000 children contracting the disease.

1957 – Russia hosts the field trials of Albert Sabin’s “live” vaccine.

1962 – The Sabin vaccine replaces the Salk vaccine.

1979 – Polio is considered eradicated in the US.