To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation—with an added hint of modern context. Explore the entire From the Archives series and check out all our anniversary coverage here.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had lost his ability to walk in 1921 at age 39 due to polio, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. When entertainer Eddie Cantor urged people to contribute to the organization by mailing dimes to the White House, they responded with more than 2.6 million ten-cent pieces, and the catchier March of Dimes was born. (FDR’s profile was later enshrined on the US dime in 1946.)  

When Newsweek’s long-time medical editor Marguerite Clark wrote a feature for Popular Science in May 1953, a vaccine for polio, or infantile paralysis, was close, but not yet assured. While the author may have overstated polio’s fatality rate (the CDC estimates less than one percent), the disease was on the rise in the US. Despite advances in understanding polio’s unique viral strains, which spread mostly during summer through nasal and oral droplets, the epidemic continued to escalate, paralyzing as many as 20,000 Americans a year at its peak in 1952.  

For most, polio was not debilitating, but for the 1-2 percent who developed paralytic polio medical care and rehabilitation therapy required extensive resources. Besides arms and legs, Clark describes how polio can sometimes paralyze the throat and chest. Crude respirators, or iron lungs, were required to force patients’ chests up and down to keep them alive. Then there was the psychological toll. At the time of the article’s writing, many experts wrongly prescribed little more than positive attitudes to overcome such mental challenges. “His abilities are greater than his disabilities,” Clark writes, paraphrasing a psychologist’s view of disabled polio victims, “provided he has enough courage to develop them.”

From the March of Dimes inception, it took seventeen years, even with copious existing research (most involving chimpanzees, who respond like humans to the virus, as Popular Science reported in February 1938), before Jonas Salk’s vaccine was released in 1955. By 1979 polio was eradicated in the US, thanks to vaccine mandates. Today, only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are polio-endemic.

“How they’re closing in on polio” (Marguerite Clark, May 1953)

Things are happening fast to raise hopes for final victory in this grim war—here’s what you should know about it NOW.

The year 1952 was the worst in the history of poliomyelitis. Some 55,000 men, women and children were struck. 

Yet 1952, a year of tragedy, brought progress that makes 1953 a year of bright hope. Polio researchers, backed by March of Dimes funds, have developed a safe and inexpensive vaccine that one day will give long-time protection against this disease.

Sometime this spring or fall there will be large-scale vaccinations, possibly of as many as 25,000 children. By 1954, if the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis feels that the time has come for public vaccination on a mass scale, all the children in the United States may get the vaccine.

Scientists worked 14 years

Here are the steps by which the scientists, after 14 years of intensive research, reached their final goal:

1. Polio is caused by a virus so small that it cannot be detected even through an electron microscope. For a long time, researchers have known that this virus has several strains. And before a polio vaccine, effective against all the strains, could be made, these various strains had to be identified. After three years, and at a cost of £1.400.000, scientists at four universities–Utah. Kansas, Pittsburgh and Southern California–proved definitely the existence of three strains of polio virus–Brunhilde, named for a chimpanzee used in a polio experiment in Baltimore; Leon, for a Los Angeles boy, who died of the disease; and Lansing, for a young man in Lansing, Michigan, who had a fatal polio attack. 

2. Once scientists had used the infected spinal cords of laboratory monkeys as the sole source of polio virus. But this infected substance, when injected into human beings, could bring on a dangerous allergy, or even death. So hope of developing a safe vaccine seemed slim. Then Dr. John F. Enders of Harvard worked out a new technique for growing the polio virus in test-tube cultures of ordinary, human tissues. The new substances, which contained all three polio strains, were easy to make and safe to inject in human beings. From that time on the search for a polio vaccine was less difficult.

3. The vaccine, which soon will be ready for large field trials, and is the key weapon in the victory against polio, has been prepared by Dr. Jonas E. Salk of the University of Pittsburgh. It is made of inactivated virus, incapable of causing infection and damaging nerve cells but still powerful enough, when injected into an animal or a child, to build up antibodies against polio. Shots are given in mineral oil, a substance which seems to stimulate the forming of antibodies. Dr. Salk’s vaccine contains all three strains of polio virus—Leon, Lansing and Brunhilde; it is made easily and inexpensively in test tubes, using the Enders technique. From the start, the vaccine was successful in protecting the laboratory monkeys and chimpanzees against polio. Since polio in monkeys and chimps follows the human course of the disease, the researchers did not doubt that a similar vaccine would prevent polio in children. Controlled tests on boys and girls followed. None developed polio, but all began to build a supply of antibodies to fight it.

For the coming polio season, it is expected that the vaccine field trials will follow the plan used in 1952 when gamma-globulin shots were given to large groups of children. Half of the youngsters will get the vaccine; the other half, harmless shots of a substance that will resemble the vaccine but with no polio-fighting power. Later, blood from the vaccinated children will be tested, and the level of the polio-fighting antibodies will be compared with that in the children’s blood before vaccination and with that of the children who got the vaccine substitute.

Meantime, the use of gamma globulin will continue. This development, although overshadowed by the vaccine, promises to be a powerful weapon against polio until the vaccine is perfected. For a long time, polio investigators have tried to find the time and place to immunize a patient against polio before the virus enters his nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and causes paralysis. In the spring of 1952, Dr. Dorothy Horstmann of Yale University and Dr. David Bodian of Johns Hopkins discovered that the polio virus, entering the body through the mouth and traveling through the digestive tract, stays in the bloodstream for a few days before it moves on to attack the nervous system.

Gammaglobulin first tried on monkeys

This gave the researchers a lead. Why not try to immunize patients against paralytic polio while the virus lingered in the bloodstream? As yet, there was no vaccine available. So Drs. Horstmann and Bodian gave small doses of gamma globulin (the blood fraction which contains antibodies to fight polio) to laboratory monkeys previously infected with polio virus. When the gamma-globulin shots were given, the animals did not develop paralytic polio; when they were not given the shots, they were paralyzed within 10 to 15 days.

On the basis of the successful experiments with monkeys, plans were made to set up the now famous gamma-globulin tests on children. In Provo, Utah, Houston, Texas, and Sioux City, Iowa, polio researchers under Dr. William McD. Hammon of Pittsburgh, proved beyond doubt the power of gamma globulin to prevent the paralytic form of polio in human beings. In these three large field tests, which cost the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis over $1,500,000, the American Red Cross furnished enough gamma globulin to immunize 55,000 children. One injection protects a child for a period of five weeks following exposure to polio.

Blood donors needed to fight Polio

It takes about a pint of whole blood to make an average dose of GG to use in polio. To get enough of the serum for the needs of the 1953 polio season, the Red Cross has expanded its blood-collection program. The Red Cross will gather and process the blood and turn the gamma globulin over to the Office of Defense Mobilization. There, the blood derivative will be allocated to state health officers, who in turn will be responsible for local use in measles, infectious hepatitis (a serious virus disease of the liver) and infantile paralysis in epidemic areas. Because of its scarcity, GG will be given to children from one to 11 years only.

It has cost the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis over $18,000,000 to reach the point where immunization can be promised. At the same time, the largest share of the March of Dimes funds about $140,000,000) has been spent on polio patients’ medical care during illness, and on expert rehabilitation therapy. More money will be needed for them, and for future victims of polio. But the dramatic research achievements of the last two years renew hope that soon every parent will be freed from the dread of infantile paralysis.

Until then as every polio specialist emphasizes, good treatment given promptly will help thousands of polio victims to recover with little or no after-effects.

That is why every mother and father must heed the warning signs: sore throat, a head cold, nausea and vomiting, fever, diarrhea, or sometimes constipation, loss of appetite, pain, particularly in the armns and leg muscles, and stiffness of the neck or back.

Tonsillectomy risky in polio season

The latest research confirms the theory that the chance of polio is increased by the removal of tonsils and adenoids during the polio season. Also, some scientists believe there is a link between the susceptibility to polio and the shots given to protect children against diphtheria and whooping cough. Shots can be given and tonsils and adenoids removed during the times when there is little or no polio in the neighborhood. 

Infantile paralysis kills about five percent of its victims. But new methods of treatment and faster and more accurate diagnosis are rapidly increasing the chance to live. Latest respirators and iron lungs are better than those models used 10 years ago. The reliable but awkward tank respirator has been replaced in many cases by a small, comfortable cylinder respirator, or even by a lightweight plastic chest respirator, which gives the patient a wider range of movement.

Electronic device aids breathing

At the Harvard School of Public Health, where the iron lung was first developed, scientists have constructed an electronic breathing device, known as the Electro-Phrenic-Respirator. A hollow needle containing a copper wire is attached to the phrenic nerve, in the side of the patient’s neck, which serves both lungs and diaphragm. When the current goes on, the nerve is stimulated and causes the diaphragm to contract and draw air into the lungs. The current is then decreased automatically, relaxing the diaphragm and forcing out air. 

When paralysis or crippling follows polio, delicate surgery often can correct this disability. Strong muscles can be transplanted to take over the job of weakened ones unable to carry on their work. Weak joints can be treated so that useless legs can again bear weight. When necessary, legs can be slowed in their growth or shortened by surgery to match the polio-shortened limb. 

Operation controls bone growth

A simple operation in which growth in one leg can be halted until a short leg can catch up with it is performed by Dr. William T. Green and Dr. Thomas Gucker III, of the Children’s Hospital, Boston. Small sections of thigh or leg bone containing cartilage are removed, then grafted back on the leg bone. The graft serves as a clamp, checking the bone’s growth.

When paralysis is present, polio specialists depend on physical therapy, heat, water, massage and electricity to keep the muscles healthy while waiting for injured nerves to recover. So far, there is no drug, chemical or antibiotic that will cure polio. The men whose job it is to search for the ideal drug have some hopeful leads. But they still say: “Not yet.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following section uses dated and insensitive language and characterizations of people suffering from polio and its long-term effects.

Rehabilitation for crippled victims

But they are doing a lot to rehabilitate crippled victims. For example, the remaining healthy muscle fibers in the arms and legs affected by polio must be exercised for proper development. For this, doctors now are using special progressive resistance exercises in which all the muscles are exercised electrically by means of a single pulley system. At the same time, a cathode-ray oscillograph (a writing device) records the child’s muscle potentials on a graph.

Polio may cripple and deform the patient’s personality, just as it cripples his body. Polio virus rarely if ever affects the patient’s mind, but an embittered, sick child may develop a personality maladjustment that will do him greater harm than a twisted arm or leg.

Dr. Morton A. Seidenfeld, director of the psychological services of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, describes a typical case:

“When a child goes to a hospital, he is entered as ‘Poliomyelitis, acute.’ But that isn’t his name at all. He is Johnny Jones, called ‘Red’ by his buddies; he’s 12, and only a few hours ago, he was captain of his sand-lot baseball team, and pleased as punch because his coach, Bill Smith, said he was a natural for the big leagues. Now he’s lonely, afraid, and sure he will never know the feel of a bat or a catcher’s mitt again.”

Handicaps can be overcome

To Dr. Seidenfeld, it is just as important for the doctor and nurse to let Johnny talk about his memories, hopes and fears, as it is to give him hot packs and to bathe and feed him. At 12, Johnny is old enough to understand a frank and honest discussion of his disability. This talk will help him to adjust normally to a world in which other boys will play baseball while he, Johnny, sits in the bleachers.

Above all, Johnny must be made to see his future in terms of a keen competition in which he can be the victor if he can rise above his limitations. Almost any kind of education is open to him, almost any profession that does not call for hard physical work. In any case, his abilities are greater than his disabilities, provided he has enough courage to develop them. If this truth can be brought home to Johnny, and to other children disabled by polio, they need feel no handicap. 

Vaccines photo
The cover of the May 1953 issue of Popular Science featuring military tech, car news, and family trip tips.

Some text has been edited to match contemporary standards and style.