In the early 1950s, the only thing scarier than the threat of nuclear war was the annual return of polio — an easily-spread, incurable disease that causes nerve damage, paralysis, and sometimes death. At the first sign of an outbreak, public hot spots like theaters and swimming pools would close up immediately.
One of the worst polio epidemics in the United States struck in 1952, a few years into the postwar baby boom. Polio is more likely to infect children than adults, so the race to create a vaccine reached a fever pitch.
Most researchers were looking into live-virus vaccines, which had worked nicely for smallpox and rabies and become the standard approach. But Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and budding virologist, was keen on the idea of safer, killed-virus vaccines. He believed the same principle would work for polio, and he was right. Within a few years of developing his vaccine, the number of polio cases in the United States dropped from ~29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. By 1979, polio had been eradicated in the US.
Jonas Salk is one of science’s folk heroes. The polio vaccine was actually his sophomore effort — he and Thomas Francis developed the first influenza vaccine in the 1940s. And he didn’t stop with polio, either. Toward the end of his life, Salk was working on an AIDS vaccine.
Continue reading “Jonas Salk, Virologist And Vaccination Vanguard”
Polio was a disease that devastated the United States in the 1950s, but with concerted efforts towards vaccination, is now on the verge of eradication. With the disease a distant memory for most, it’s easy to miss the fact that there are still those suffering the effects of the disease decades after its initial strike.
The iron lung was an invention that helped keep thousands of sufferers alive, by breathing for those who had lost the ability through the degenerative effects of the disease. A small handful of people are still relying on those machines today, and there’s a problem – who is around to keep these machines running?
The story is a powerful one, made up of interviews with those who still rely on their machines on a daily basis to stay alive. Particularly poignant is Lillard’s account of the repairman who came to fix her machine, and tried to leave before putting it back together. As someone who needs the machine operational to survive, this obviously wasn’t going to cut it.
Overall, these are people who have relied on help from friends, neighbours, and local tinkerers to help keep their machines running long after the companies responsible have long stopped supporting the hardware. This has led to an unenviable situation for Lillard herself – she’s no longer able to purchase replacement collars that seal her neck to the machine, as the subsidiary of Phillips responsible only has ten left in the country and will no longer sell to her. Naomi Wu and others are organising on Twitter to find a way to remanufacture these parts. If you’re in the know, or otherwise have the expertise, get involved or throw your ideas down in the comments.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard dark stories of medical equipment from years past – the story of the Therac-25 is particularly chilling.
Scientific improvements that create industries and save millions of lives often come at a price that isn’t revealed until much later. Leaded gasoline helped the automobile industry take off and synthesized Freon extended the lifespan of lifesaving vaccines, but they took an incredible toll on the environment.
Both were invented in the early 20th century by Thomas Midgley, Jr. After graduating from Cornell in 1911 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he worked briefly for National Cash Register where inventor Charles Kettering had just created the first electronic till. In 1916, Midgley started working for Kettering at Dayton Metal Products Company, which soon became the research division of General Motors.
Continue reading “Thomas Midgley, GM, And The Dark Side Of Progress”