As a Pitt student, you’re expected to know a few things about your school: it’s really old, the Cathedral of Learning is really tall, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood filmed here, and Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine here. I can’t speak for the rest of what I might have learned over the past three and a half years, but I will leave my undergraduate career knowing that Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine at Pitt in 1955.
The front page of The Pittsburgh Press for April 12th, 1955 is dedicated, in large part, to just that discovery: “POLIO IS CONQUERED” proclaims the headline, dominating the whole top section of the front page. On that day, the announcement was made that the vaccine developed by Salk was effective and safe—with an efficacy rate of 80 to 90 percent. A statement from Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., who oversaw the final testing of the vaccine, is quoted: “There can be no doubt now that children can be inoculated successfully against polio…The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”
The Press does everything to portray the massive import of the news they are reporting. One article notes that, “The impact of Dr. Francis’ announcement was terrific. Some of the scientists actually wept at the news.” Another reports on the congratulations that the mayor and governor have offered Salk and his team. Another calls for Salk to receive awards, which will come in due time.
More than anything else, examining the newspaper from the day of the announcement of the efficacy of the polio vaccine drives home the devastating impact that polio had had on the country. A full-page ad deeper in the issue from “Parke, Davis, and Company,” a major pharmaceutical company that was one of the companies charged with manufacturing the vaccine, asks, “What does the Polio Vaccine Report mean to you?” There are questions and answers about who will be the first to get the vaccine, how to get it for your family, the way that it will be distributed. There was clearly concern about the vaccine for the average family.
There are few medical stories I could imagine that would dominate a newspaper today the way the polio vaccine story dominates the paper. Nearly every story for the first several pages focuses on a different aspect of the, as the newspaper can already see, coming medical revolution. There is clear understanding of the massive difference that this news stands to make.
Arguably, this is one of the most important stories to come out of Pittsburgh over the last century—the one with the most impact on the history and health of the country and the world or decades to come. But to find this story, this newspaper cover from a day that changed the world, you have to dig through archives, know the date, know the story you’re looking for ahead of time. It’s hidden, preserved among the covers of many, many relatively unimportant days and unimportant stories.
That is the strangeness of archives and of historical preservation: sometimes the things preserved are important, but much of it merely testifies to the mundane daily life. Sometimes, though, you do get to find the articles that record the greatest moments in medical history.
View the full front cover here