The Arrival of the Salk Polio Vaccine:
Documents from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

Table of Contents

A Rose Garden Ceremony Honoring Dr. Jonas Salk (front row, 2nd from left), April 22, 1955. Front row, from left, Basil O'Connor, President, National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis; Salk; President Dwight D. Eisenhower; Oveta Culp Hobby, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)

In 2005, institutions around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the vaccine against polio developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. The arrival of the Salk polio vaccine in April, 1955, is viewed by many as a watershed event in the history of public health, the culmination of a national effort against a disease that had been among the most feared by Americans throughout the early 20th century.

The Salk polio vaccine marked a turning point in public health officials' activities against polio. Coupled with subsequent developments in vaccines and other preventive measures, the impact of polio fell precipitously in the second half of the 20th century. At its peak, the virus is estimated to have paralyzed or killed as many as 500,000 annually worldwide. Today, health officials report that polio is a threat to only a handful of countries, with fewer than 2,000 worldwide cases each year. Polio was declared eradicated from the United States in 1979.

Polio and efforts to prevent and treat it have a vast history that includes medical researchers, private foundations, governments, presidents, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, novel medical technologies, and, of course, the many patients who suffered as a result of the disease.

In the United States, this history spans the entire 20th century and continues today. An attractive point of entry to begin exploring the American experience of polio is the period when it captured the public's attention to the greatest extent. This period was the spring of 1955, following the announcement that Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was safe and effective and including the national push to produce and distribute the newly approved vaccine as quickly as possible.

This website examines many of the events related to the arrival of the first polio vaccine in 1955 through the lens of documents from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. Capturing the perspectives of President Eisenhower and his advisors on the rapid series of developments, the documents provide one view of this notable chapter of American history. By no means a comprehensive account of the events they describe, the documents illustrate how officials at the highest levels of the federal government were understanding the events as they unfolded and influencing these events by their statements and decisions.

The documents, which cover events from April-July 1955, appear after a review of major developments in polio prevention and treatment efforts predating the arrival of the Salk polio vaccine. Also included throughout the site are relevant archival audio and video footage of significant events.

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