Dr. Jonas Salk visits Century 21 Exposition and is honored at the United States Science Pavilion on June 4, 1962.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/11/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9963
On June 4, 1962, Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) addresses leading scientists, educators, community leaders, and fairgoers at the United States Science Pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair. Salk invented the first vaccine capable of protecting humans from poliomyelitis (polio). It was introduced to the public between 1955 and 1958 and earned him near-deity status among American parents, for whom the threat of their children catching polio had been a persistent terror.

A Dread Disease

In 1952 -- just 10 years before the fair -- the United States reported 57,628 polio cases.  That was the worst United States epidemic on record.  Salk's vaccine was delivered by injection. An oral polio vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin (1906-1993) was introduced in 1961.

Poliomyelitis (also known as infantile paralysis or polio) is a disease caused by infection by the poliovirus.  Polio takes three forms: subclinical (which may not have symptoms), nonparalytic (symptoms last one to two weeks), or paralytic.  The specter of paralytic poliomyelitis terrified parents: a child could be running and playing in the afternoon, and be unable to move or to breathe unaided by evening. Where the disease is present, children, pregnant women, and elderly people are most vulnerable. 

The disease was epidemic worldwide between 1840 and the late 1950s. It is most common in summer and fall.  Polio cases in the United States fell 85 to 90 percent following the introduction of Salk's vaccine, with other countries experiencing the same effect as the use of the Salk and Sabin vaccines spread.  Children in the United States and many other countries have been routinely vaccinated against the disease since the 1960s, and cases in the Western hemisphere are rare. 

Since the 1990s, major efforts to promote global use of the vaccine have meant that poliovirus now exists in only a few countries in Africa and Asia, with outbreaks in other countries occurring only after an unvaccinated person has been exposed during travel and carried the disease home.  Children and others who have not been immunized but who live in countries where most of the population has received the vaccine are protected by so-called herd immunity, but if directly exposed will still be vulnerable to the highly contagious disease.

Jonas Salk Day

Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) proclaimed June 4, 1962, Jonas Salk Day in honor of the distinguished physician.  It was also Jonas Salk Day at the fair.  The public ceremony honoring Salk began at 11:00.  Washington Lt. Governor John Cherberg (1910-1992), Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011), Century 21 Exposition President Joseph Gandy (1904-1971), and Washington World's Fair Commission Chairman Edward Carlson (1911-1990) participated in the event.

National Foundation of March of Dimes president Basil O'Connor (1892-1972) presented the United States Science Pavilion (which became Pacific Science Center immediately after the fair) with a model of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which was at the time under construction in La Jolla, California.  Salk was to direct the institute.  The facility was designed by architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974).

Dr. Athelstan Spillhaus (1911-1998), commissioner of the United States Science Pavilion, introduced Salk.  Salk told the crowd that he had not wanted the institute named for him, but had been overruled by the other scientists who were to be fellows at the institution.  The facility, he said, would be a "laboratory for life ... . We here we have the Space Age, but the Seattle World's Fair and the U.S. Science Pavilion is evidence of something further on -- the Age of Man" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 5, 1962).  He later explained that in the Age of Man, scientists and philosophers would be united in their quest for knowledge.

Joseph Gandy told the crowd that he could not think of a more distinguished American the fair could have as a visitor, adding "His work means more than any living scientist" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 5, 1962).

Salk vs. Sabin?

Salk gave another address in the Science Pavilion's Science Theater later the same day.  Asked to weigh in on the ongoing controversy of whether his injected vaccine or Sabin's oral vaccine was safest and most effective, Salk declined to comment.  "Scientists should not battle each other.  We should devote our time to the common quest for discovery.  This is how the answers will be found," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 5, 1962).  The Salk vaccine uses inactivated (killed) viruses.  The Sabin vaccine uses live, but attenuated (weakened) virus. 

Neither Salk or Sabin patented their vaccines, which meant that they did not directly benefit financially from the development of the vaccines, and that the vaccines were much less expensive to produce.

The Prayers of Millions

The Seattle Times called Jonas Salk "the man who answered the prayers of millions" (June 5, 1962).  His appearance at the fair was a chance for Washingtonians to see this venerated scientist in person.

The first state residents to receive Salk's vaccine did so during clinical trials in April 1954.  About two-thirds of all school-aged children in Kitsap, Whatcom, and Yakima counties were given a series of three inoculations, then observed over the following summer. Those counties were chosen because they had reported elevated numbers of polio cases, as compared with the rest of the state.

The news that Salk's vaccine worked prompted banner headlines in newspapers across the country.  "SALK POLIO VACCINE IS EFFECTIVE, POTENT, SAFE, SURVEY SHOWS," screamed The Seattle Times.  "The Salk poliomyelitis vaccine works -- safely and potently -- and virtually can end the fear that long has gripped the hearts of parents" (April 12, 1955, p.1).

Sources: "Dr. Jonas Salk To Address Fair Audience," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 1962, p. 12; "Vaccine Discoverer Begins New Quest," Ibid., June 5, 1962, p. 6; "Dr. Salk Discusses His Philosophy Here," The Seattle Times, June 5, 1962, p. A; "Parents in 3 Counties O.K. Polio Vaccine," Ibid., April 22, 1954, p. 11; "Salk Polio Vaccine Is Effective, Potent, Safe, Survey Shows," Ibid., April 4, 1955, p. 1; "Poliomyelitis," New York Times.com Health Guide website accessed November 9, 2011  (http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/poliomyelitis/overview.html); Joe Palca, "Salk Polio Vaccine Concurred Terrifying Disease," National Public Radio website accessed November 9, 2011 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4585992) ; "Whatever Happened To Polio: Two Vaccines," Smithsonian National Museum of American History website accessed November 10, 2011 (http://americanhistory.si.edu/polio/virusvaccine/vacraces.htm) ; Paula Becker and Alan J. Stein, The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair And Its Legacy (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 2011), 116.

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