The Polio Years

salk administering vaccine

Prior to 1941, 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. In the 1940s however, Watson began to see an influx of polio patients. During this time, Watson was one of only four schools in the country chosen by the National Association of Infantile Paralysis to provide care for epidemic areas. The others were Harvard, Northwestern and Stanford.

In 1943, Sister Elizabeth Kenny traveled to Sewickley to teach Watson’s physical therapy students the “Kenny Method,” the treatment of choice for treating polio survivors. The treatment was based on exercising the muscles affected and applying wet, wool cloths to the limbs paralyzed by the disease.

In 1952, a record-setting year for polio, approximately 57,600 Americans contracted polio, of which more than 3,000 died. In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk and his research team administered a polio vaccine to children at Watson who were already suffering from the disease. Upon its success, the vaccine was given to Watson’s physical therapy students and staff.

The success of these trials led to more wide spread vaccinations, including children at several schools throughout the Sewickley area. Next, the researchers inoculated more than 4,000 children in Pittsburgh public schools. In 1955, after the vaccine trials were declared safe and effective, the inoculation was given to children throughout the country.

By 1957, the number of polio cases decreased to 5,600, with further declines as time went on. Dr. Salk was considered a hero and the saving grace of children throughout the country.

In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine, which used a live polio virus, replaced Dr. Salk’s vaccine.

To date, polio has been eradicated throughout the western hemisphere, but cases still afflict those in many countries, including Asian and African nations. A target date of 2005 was set for the worldwide eradication of polio by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.