The Albert B. Sabin Digitization Project: Reaction to the Salk Polio Vaccine Clinical Trials

Letter from Dr. Sabin to Dr. Richard Nelson regarding the 1954 mass trial of Salk's poliomyelitis vaccine.

By Megan Ryan, Sabin Project Student Assistant

The clinical trials for Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine began on February 23rd, 1954. This initial mass inoculation was huge in scale, “the clinical trials of the Salk vaccine were the largest ever conducted, involving nearly two million children”. Immediately the vaccine was announced and hailed as an enormous victory in the medical field against a disease plaguing countries around the world. In Dr. Salk’s obituary the aforementioned announcement was referred to as “the turning point in the battle against polio” and it was said that, “news caused a public sensation probably unequaled by any health development in modern times”.[1]

One of Dr. Sabin’s issues with the mass trials of Salk’s newly developed vaccine seems to have been an issue with the media sensationalism of the proclaimed cure for polio. While Dr. Sabin was developing his oral polio vaccine, Dr. Walter K. Frankel wrote to him asking his advice on poliomyelitis, and amongst other things, questioning the sponsorship of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis for Salk’s vaccine. Dr. Sabin responded, “While I also deplore the propaganda which these days seems to be associated with anything having to do with poliomyelitis, I do not question the sincerity or the motives of the people working for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.”[2] Clearly, Dr. Sabin had an issue with the media portrayal of poliomyelitis at the time.

Another expression of his disinterest in media involving poliomyelitis was exhibited when he was asked by Morris Wattenberg of WCPO-TV to do a segment on polio regarding the facts, safeguards, and current polio research. Mr. Wattenberg said to Dr. Sabin, “Frankly, your name came to mind when I read the Time article on Dr. Jonas Salk. But, it does seem to me it may be worthwhile to explore the possibilities of such a program, especially if we could employ some laboratory shots and perhaps slides, and further, if we could be assured of the co-operation of an outstanding man in the field such as yourself in a public-service endeavor.”[3] Dr. Sabin curtly replied, “I regret that I shall not find it possible to participate in any TV program dealing with poliomyelitis.”[4] As an extremely busy man, Dr. Sabin had to devote his precious time to endeavors that he saw as most important; seeking media fame was not one of the activities he pursued.

Dr. Sabin had another issue with the mass inoculation trials of Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine; he believed that the vaccine had not been chemically tested enough prior to the trials, and that the vaccination creation procedures lacked standardization. Regarding the lack of standardized, repeatable procedures, there was the worry that if the vaccine was successful others would be unable to duplicate it, or just as tragically, if there was a bad outcome that scientists would not know what to attribute the results to.

Dr. Richard J. Nelson wrote to Dr. Sabin requesting more information on his doubts regarding the Salk vaccine, “We are about to proceed with an immunization program with Dr. Salk’s poliomyelitis vaccine. This decision was made prior to the time I assumed office as Salt Lake City Health Commissioner. All reports concerning this vaccine appeared hopeful when it was first publicized and there was no mention of possible dangers involved in its use. At present, however, questions have been raised by both medical and lay people as to its potential dangers. Your name has been associated with unofficial statements that there might possibly be some danger in this vaccine. Would you care to send to us any information which you have concerning any possible dangers which might arise following the use of Dr. Salk’s poliomyelitis vaccine? Any information sent, we should be very pleased to handle in any manner which you might desire.”[5] To which Dr. Sabin responded, “In a lecture which I gave before the Michigan Clinical Institute on March 11 I enumerated the reasons why I thought the mass trial of poliomyelitis vaccine scheduled for 1954 was premature. This decision was based primarily on the fact that the material to be tested on a mass scale had received insufficient standardization and study to permit proper performance of such a test or to draw any valid conclusions from it”[6] Dr. Sabin requested that this knowledge be used only for Salt Lake City’s purposes, and that it not be leaked to the press or used in any other manner. In his concluding remarks to Dr. Nelson, Dr. Sabin remarked poignantly that, “Large scale tests on hundreds of thousands of children, in my opinion, should be carried out with materials that could ultimately be readily manufactured, reproduced, and licensed.”[7]

In a New York Times article on March 12, 1954 entitled “Doctor Criticizes Polio Vaccine Use”, The discrepancy of opinion between Dr. Sabin and Dr. Salk was acknowledged, “Dr. Sabin asked that his disagreement with the decision to make a mass test of the Salk vaccine not be over assessed: ‘It is a matter of differences of opinion between people who are qualified to judge.’”[8] He was wary of such a declaration of success also, advising a more cautious representation of polio vaccine progression, “We are not at the end of the road to control, but only at the beginning, let us not confuse justifiable optimism with achievement.”[9] Looking towards the future development of both Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin’s polio vaccines, Dr. Sabin took the following stance, “In my opinion, therefore, these promising studies [his own and Dr. Salk’s] should proceed as rapidly and extensively as possible, but without undue haste in attempting to transfer them or apply them to millions of human beings.”[10]

[1] “Feb. 23, 1954 – Clinical Trials Begin for Jonas Salk’s Polio Vaccine.”
[2] Letter from Dr. Sabin to Dr. Frankel, 17 March 1954. Found in Series #1- Correspondence, Sub-series – General, Box 5, Folder 5, General – 1954.
[3] Letter from Morris Wattenberg to Dr. Sabin, 13 April 1954. Found in Series #1- Correspondence, Sub-series – General, Box 5, Folder 5, General – 1954.
[4] Letter from Dr. Sabin to Morris Wattenberg, 19 April 1954. Found in Series #1- Correspondence, Sub-series – General, Box 5, Folder 5, General – 1954.
[5] Letter from Dr. Nelson to Dr. Sabin, 16 April 1954. Found in Series #1- Correspondence, Sub-series – General, Box 5, Folder 4, Polio Vaccine – 1953-1954.
[6] Letter from Dr. Sabin to Dr. Nelson, 19 April 1954. Found in Series #1- Correspondence, Sub-series – General, Box 5, Folder 4, Polio Vaccine – 1953-1954.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Doctor Criticizes Polio Vaccine Use.”
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

In 2010, the University of Cincinnati Libraries received a $314,258 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the correspondence and photographs of Dr. Albert B. Sabin. This digitization project has been designated a NEH “We the People” project, an initiative to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation’s history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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