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Heinz History Center: Looking Back At The Invention Of The Polio Vaccine

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Heinz History Center CEO Andy Masich is looking back on the anniversary of Jonas Salk administering the first polio vaccines here in Pittsburgh.

Video Transcript


DAVID HIGHFIELD: Today marks a pivotal day in history, one that really resonates with us this year as we have to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: On this date in 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk administered the first injections of the new polio vaccine to brave students at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: But these shots came after Dr. Salk first tested the vaccine on himself and his own family. He did it to show the world how safe and effective the vaccine actually was.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Now 65 years later, our nation is grappling with a similar issue, and Heinz History Center President and CEO Andy Masich is here with more on the comparisons from then to now. And it really is so true, as we're hearing from people who want to get the vaccine very desperately and some who are a little hesitant.

ANDY MASICH: Mm-hmm, you know, you're-- you're absolutely right. Those many years ago when Salk was testing the polio vaccine, people were panicked about this. Many people thought it was just too scary to inject a killed virus into their own bodies, and Salk had to inject his three sons and his wife and himself just to show, hey, look, I have confidence in this. It's going to work. And people were staying at home. Kids couldn't go to swimming pools or out of the house. You had to play with only your pod of friends, because polio was a devastating disease. And the country knew that it could affect anyone. Even the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a polio victim.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: Yeah, you know, remembering this and as you talk about this, Andy, it's remarkable the similarities to what we're going through now. And one of the drastic changes, I think, is we've seen vaccines being produced for COVID so quickly.


DAVID HIGHFIELD: I mean, the study for-- for the polio vaccine, it took a year to evaluate the results, right?

ANDY MASICH: You know, it took Salk seven years at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, where he was on the faculty-- it took him seven years of testing to get this killed virus just right. And then how do you test it? Well, there was a rival vaccine being developed by Albert Sabin. Dr. Sabin said, no, I think we need to use live viruses and attenuate them or weaken them. And, whoa, people said, there's no way you're going to put a live virus in my body. So there were these two rival vaccines going at the same time. Salk came out first and tested it on the kids at Arsenal Middle School and then schools in Leetsdale and Sewickley, and it took a year to kind of evaluate this study.

And then a famous doctor, Dr. Francis, came out and said, this polio vaccine is safe, it's effective, and it's potent. It works. And, boy, that changed the world. Salk was on the cover of Newsweek and was said to be the greatest American alive, and people around the world were saved from the scourge of polio. But by 1961, Dr. Sabin's vaccine, which was an oral vaccine-- you could take it on a lump of sugar--

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Oh, yeah, we were just hearing that.

ANDY MASICH: --and ingest it. That turned out to be even more effective over the long term. It was good for the rest of your life rather than just a year. So these-- these dueling vaccines were very much a part of the story, and public confidence was very much a part of the story just as it is today.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: It's so funny, because Patty on our floor was just saying, I don't remember the shot. I remember getting a cube of sugar when I was a kid.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: Right, and I never knew that part before. So now we know from Andy. And we should say, there's actually a vial of the vaccine at the History Center as part of the exhibit there.

ANDY MASICH: That's right. We have an exhibit about innovation and how Pittsburghers have changed the world. And, of course, the Salk polio-vaccine story is very much a part of that, and we have a vial of the vaccine there. And just think how important that was to the world.


ANDY MASICH: And just as these vaccines are today, we can see how a pandemic can change our lives.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Yeah. Wow. Andy, thank you so much.

ANDY MASICH: You bet. And you two, keep up the good work. You're making a difference.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Aw! You're validating us.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: Thank you, Andy.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Andy, you're a superstar. Thank you.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: All right, Andy Masich, he is president and CEO of the Heinz History Center and a regular PTL contributor and a superstar. So we thank him for being with us.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: You know what I noticed? We have a lot of video of kids crying from that polio-vaccine video.

DAVID HIGHFIELD: Of children crying.

HEATHER ABRAHAM: Oh, poor things.