Brief History of Polio

Few diseases frightened parents in the early-20th century more than polio. It often struck in the warmer summer months, sweeping through cities and towns in epidemics every few years. Polio (short for poliomyelitis) is an acute paralytic disease. It’s an enterovirus, meaning it is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus that enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract where it thrives, but it can move to the nervous system. It's transmitted through contact with people, by nasal and oral secretions, and by contact with contaminated feces. Polio virus enters the body through the mouth, multiplying along the way and especially in the digestive tract.

Polio has existed since ancient times and was documented in the written record in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are three wild types of polio virus (types 1-3), which are naturally-occurring and non-mutated strains.

An Australian doctor is vaccinating a girl, who is smiling while a nurse looks on

An Australian doctor vaccinating a child against polio. National Library of Medicine
Symptoms of polio include sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headache, and stomach pain. Some people experienced more serious symptoms like paresthesia (feeling of pins and needles in the legs), paralysis (the inability to move part of the body), and meningitis (an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain). Probably the best-known symbol of polio is the iron lung. Iron lungs were large metal tube-like boxes that provided breathing support for paralyzed polio patients (two photos below). The iron lung was first invented in 1929 by Dr. Phillip Drinker and Dr. Charles McKhann at Boston Children’s Hospital. Iron lungs were temporary, although sometimes permanent, solutions for polio patients whose paralysis affected their breathing. These more severe symptoms caused fear before the vaccine was invented. There were serious outbreaks of polio in Europe and the United States in the early 20th century; in the late 1940s, more than 35,000 people were disabled by polio each year. Scientists were compelled to develop a vaccine. Both the Salk and the Sabine vaccines came into use in the 1950s and are discussed more fully in this timeline.

Scientists from the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Biologics Research and Review (OBRR), which is what the biologics regulation team was called in the 1980s, continued investigating inactivated poliomyelitis vaccines, collaborating with others to investigate how inactivated vaccines could offer advantages in both cost and dosing schedules. They also made use of recent genetic technology in the assessment of the character of the vaccines. And along with the World Health Organization, the FDA developed international guidelines for testing live polio vaccine viruses.

Late in 1987, what was now called the FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research licensed a more potent inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine. Improvements in cell culture and purification facilitated this new, more effective vaccine requiring three doses instead of four. This vaccine was preferred for unimmunized adults and for children with suppressed immune systems.

Although polio has no cure, as you will read in this timeline, vaccines have successfully eradicated polio in the western hemisphere since 1994.

a polio patient in a iron lung with two soldiers and a nurse attending to him

A nurse and two U.S. Army corpsmen attend to a polio patient in an iron lung in 1949.  National Library of Medicine

A polio patient in a large whirlpool tub is receiving treatment

 A polio patient in a large whirlpool tub is receiving treatment with the aid of a physiotherapist in 1949. National Library of Medicine (Hal Rumel, Photographer)

color postcard image circa-1942 with a child in an iron lung being watched over by a nurse.

An image from a circa-1942 advertising postcard for the Harry-Anna Crippled Children's Home, Umatilla, Florida, featuring a child in an iron lung being watched over by a nurse. National Library of Medicine ( Michael Zwerdling, former owner; Carl E. Wartman, publisher; E.C. Kropp Co., printer)

A black and white photo of a child on crutches trying to walk with a nurse nearby. Photo taken in Japan at a polio hospital

A nurse is ready to offer assistance to a young boy with polio struggling to walk with the aid of crutches and leg braces. Shigenori Kameyama was little more than a year old when the polio virus found him in the hamlet of Tskuni on Kyushe Island, some 1,800 kilometers from Tokyo, Japan. He became completely paralyzed.  Several years later, Shigenori was admitted to the Seiahi Ryogo En, a hospital, school, and home for crippled children founded in 1937 by Dr. Kenji Takagi, pioneer of rehabilitation work in Japan. There Shigenori began the long battle to regain partial use of his limbs. After two years of patient endeavor by Shigenori and his nurses, he managed to hobble forward a distance of five feet.  Photographer Dominique Darbois, World Health Organization (WHO) via National Library of Medicine

Photo of a physiotherapist giving directions to convalescent pediatric polio patients with mothers watching

A physiotherapist giving directions to convalescent polio patients with mothers watching at the Dr. W.H. Groves Latter-Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City, UT in 1949. Intermountain Healthcare via National Library of Medicine