History of the Watson Institute

The Watson Institute is the legacy of Mr. and Mrs. David Thompson Watson. A Pittsburgh business leader and a well-known international attorney representing such notables as A.M. Byers, Andrew Carnegie, W.H. Vanderbilt, Henry Phipps, and Henry Clay Frick, David Watson and his wife, Margaret, dedicated considerable time and resources to the care, education, and treatment of children with disabilities.

After David’s death in 1916 and Margaret’s death shortly thereafter, the Watson’s “Sunny Hill” summer estate in Sewickley, PA became the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children. Their legacy continues today, more than 100 years later.

Throughout the Watson Institute’s rich history, the organization has reached individuals with disabilities at all stages of their lives. From the early days of our history as the home of the Dr. Jonas Salk polio trials, to the present day as the region’s premier provider of special education and mental health services for children, the Watson Institute keeps D.T. and Margaret Watson’s compassionate work at the core of all that we do.

The Polio Years

Prior to 1941, the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children cared mostly for patients who suffered from bone diseases such as osteomyelitis and tuberculosis of the bone, using physical therapy and exercise to treat these diseases. In the 1940s, Watson began to see an influx of polio patients. At the time, Watson was one of only four schools in the U.S. chosen by the National Association of Infantile Paralysis to provide care for epidemic areas.

In 1943, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a pioneer in muscle rehabilitation and founder of physical therapy, traveled to the Watson Institute, teaching her “Kenny Method” to the resident physical therapy students. The “Kenny Method” became the treatment of choice for treating polio survivors and focused on exercising the muscles affected by the virus.

Dr. Jonas Salk – The Polio Trials

In 1947, Dr. Jonas Salk, a New York University medical school graduate, was working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. While there, Dr. Salk devoted nearly 10 years to studying and developing a vaccine against polio.

In 1952, Dr. Salk performed the first clinical trials of his new polio vaccine at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children (now the Watson Institute). After the success of his clinical trials, Dr. Salk inoculated a large group of Watson’s patients who were suffering from polio, recording their medical history for the next ten (10) years.

Widespread inoculation using the Salk vaccine led to further developments and enhancements to the vaccine, leading to the near eradication of the polio virus in the modern day.

The Watson Institute – A Family of Special Education Schools

In 1999, D.T. Watson sold its rehabilitation hospital, returning to its mission of serving children with disabilities ages 3 to 21, and re-named the organization, the Watson Institute.

Throughout the early 2000s, the Watson Institute has expanded from its original Sewickley campus to add three additional locations in Sharpsburg, Friendship (East Liberty area), and Bridgeville.

The Watson Institute now offers support through its family of special education schools, reaching students with various diagnoses and support needs including autism, cerebral palsy, psychiatric disorders, intellectual disabilities, and anxiety.

As the organization continues to evolve to meet the needs of the communities it serves, the Watson Institute keeps its mission at its core.

The Watson Institute helps children with special needs achieve their fullest potential in all aspects of their lives.