Illustration by Art Seiden

Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America

World War II to the Present:


Drs. Jonas E. Salk And Albert Sabin Conquer Polio

by Seymour "Sy" Brody

Drs. Jonas E. Salk and Albert B. Sabin were the pioneers and researchers who discovered the vaccine and serum to combat polio, a crippling and killing disease that affected millions of people throughout the world annually.

Salk was the oldest of three sons born to Dora and Daniel B. Salk in New York City on October 28, 1914. An exceptional student, he graduated from Townsend Harris High School, the school for the talented and gifted, and worked his way through City College. He received his medical degree from the College of Medicine at New York University in June 1939. In 1942, he went to the University of Michigan, where he developed an influenza vaccine to destroy the polio viruses.

Salk worked to develop vaccines that killed each of the three types of polio viruses. After injecting small groups of people, Salk announced in October 1953 that he had injected 600 people with the vaccine. This experimental group would determine the safety of the new vaccine. The next month, the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis announced it was making plans for large scale testing of Salk's vaccine.

During the next year more than a million children received three injections for the three types of viruses. Salk also injected himself, his wife and children. The testing proved that this was the first answer in combating polio. The new vaccine, however, had one drawback: booster injections had to be given periodically.

Sabin, meanwhile, had been conducting experiments on obtaining a live polio virus pill to be taken orally since 1952. In 1955, he conducted experiments with prisoners who had volunteered.

Sabin was born in Bialystok, Poland, on August 26, 1906, one of four children of Tillie and Jacob Sabin. The family came to America in 1921, settling in Paterson, New Jersey, where Sabin's father was in the silk and manufacturing business. Early in his career, Sabin, who received his medical degree from New York University in 1931, became interested in polio. Many of his experiments on polio virus research were reported to the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis.

During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, where he was involved with the development of a vaccine against dengue fever and the successful vaccination of 65,000 military personnel against the Japanese type of polio. After the war, Sabin continued his research on polio. He developed a vaccine that used live virus; Salk's vaccine used dead virus.

Sabin and his associates took the oral live viruses before conducting experiments on select groups of people form 1955 to 1957. During this period, Salk's vaccine was in use, but many virologists throughout the world believed Sabin had a superior vaccine.

From 1957 to 1959, the U.S.S.R. and the other Eastern Bloc nations gave the oral vaccine, with its advantages of oral administration and long-term immunity, to millions of children and adults. Finally, Sabin's vaccine was used in the United States. Sabin died on March 3, 1993. Dr. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995.

Drs. Salk and Sabin saved millions of lives and protected many more from the crippling disease. They proved to be Jewish heroes in America by their lifesaving contributions.

The United States Postal Service issued two stamps honoring these two doctors for their efforts in fighting polio. On March 6, 2006, they issued a 63-cents stamp to honor Dr. Jonas Salk and on March 8, 2006, they honored Dr. Albert Sabin.

Portraits by Artist Mark Summers
Dr. Albert Sabin Dr. Jonas Salk

This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.

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