Chronicling Pitt

Issue Date: 
February 11, 2008

An ongoing series highlighting University of Pittsburgh history

In February 1953, Jonas Salk and his associates began to inoculate 1,000 consenting children and adults in the Pittsburgh area with the experimental polio vaccine.

According to Robert C. Albert’s Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787-1987, the positive results from the localized testing paved the way for the national inoculation of 1.8 million children in the spring and summer of 1954—the largest field-testing program in the history of preventive medicine.

Salk came to Pitt in 1947 as associate research professor of bacteriology and head of the Virus Research Laboratory, located in the basement of the Municipal Hospital (now Salk Hall). There he began extensive research into the poliomyelitis epidemic. Salk believed that humans could be immunized from polio through exposure to a killed strain of the virus that retained enough strength to stimulate antibodies within the bloodstream.

Salk’s research, conducted almost entirely at Pitt, culminated in 1955 with a vaccine that helped rid polio from the modern world. By 1959, some 70 million Americans under the age of 40 had received one or more injections of the Salk Vaccine.