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By Catherine A. Paul

May 19, 2017

Patients at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation holding a giant card for President Roosevelt
A 1934 photograph of patients at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation holding a giant card for President Roosevelt as part of a fundraiser
Photo: Courtesy of Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation via Digital Library of Georgia

What Is Polio?

The first U.S. polio epidemic swept across the country in 1916, and then again in the late 1940s and 1950s. Polio is caused by a virus; it affects the body by attacking the central nervous system, specifically those neurons essential for muscle activity. Polio begins similar to a stomach virus, with fatigue, nausea, and a fever, and it is highly contagious. These polio epidemics affected people of all economic and social classes, ages, and genders (Dell Orto & Marinelli, 1995).


Syringe and three vials used to test the Salk polio vaccine on children
The syringe and vial used to test the Salk polio vaccine on children who already had polio, 1952
Photo: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center via the Smithsonian Institution

In 1952, Jonas Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine. However, in order to perfect its use for wide-scale immunization, the vaccine had to undergo rigorous testing (Paul, 1971). In 1954, 1.8 million children known as the  Polio Pioneers participated in the Salk polio vaccine trials. These schoolchildren were the first to receive the immunization (Leavitt, 2013). The Salk inactivated polio vaccine led to a massive drop in polio cases in the U.S.; by 1957, there were 5,600 annual cases of polio, down from 35,000 in 1953 (Paul, 1971).

In April 1955, over 200,000 children received the Salk polio vaccine containing a live, rather than inactivated, virus. Known as the Cutter Incident, this mistake tragically led to 40,000 cases of polio, leaving approximately 200 children paralyzed and 10 dead (Fitzpatrick, 2006). Unsurprisingly, the Cutter Incident created suspicion around vaccinations, especially Albert Sabin’s live polio vaccination. However, after years of trials overseas, the Sabin vaccine proved to be safe and more effective than the Salk vaccine because it was administered orally, working in the intestines to block the virus from entering the bloodstream (Paul, 1971). Between 1963 and 1999, the live Sabin vaccine largely replaced the Salk vaccine (National Museum of American History: Behring Center, n.d.).


Fredrick Goodall, aged six, doing leg exercises with his nurse
A photograph of Fredrick Goodall, aged six, doing leg exercises with his nurse.
Photo: Courtesy of Indiana Memory

Many polio survivors underwent surgery with hopes of regaining some of their former functioning (Wilson, 2005). More typically, however, individuals with polio wore braces to immobilize and support their limbs. Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse, offered a controversial new approach to therapies for survivors. She criticized these immobilization-based treatments, arguing that limbs needed to be exercised to rebuild their strength (Paul, 1971). She recommended months, or even years, of physical therapy to strengthen muscles and compensate for those atrophied due to the disease (Wilson, 2005). Thus, Kenny laid the foundation for modern physical therapy and physiotherapy (Paul, 1971).

The Impact of Polio on Culture: March of Dimes and Modern Philanthropy

Man with sign raising money for the March of Dimes Foundation. He is sitting at the console of a radio station and appears to be the D J.
A photograph of a man with a sign to raise money for the March of Dimes Foundation to help prevent “birth defects, arthritis, and polio.”
Photo: Courtesy of East Carolina University via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

The March of Dimes is a U.S. nonprofit that continues to work to improve the health of mothers and their children. Founded in 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat polio, the March of Dimes was originally known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). The NFIP sponsored and funded vast scientific and medical research to understand polio, its effects, and how to treat it. Additionally, the NFIP and March of Dimes provided funds to care for children who contracted polio (Wilson, 2005).

The March of Dimes contributed to the evolution of fundraising, appealing to the middle class, young parents, small businessmen, and homemakers. The March of Dimes advertised their fundraising efforts as democracy in action, by which everyone was called collaborate for the common good. Because anyone could find one dime to contribute, it made fundraising accessible to all (Seavey, Smith, & Wagner, 1998).

Advertisement appearing in Superboy comic book: "Polio Research Will Mean Victory!" Ad gives precautions to stay healthy and promises a vaccine will be ready soon
“Polio: Research will mean Victory!” public service announcement appearing in Superboy: The Superboy Souvenirs no.36 OCT 1954
Image: Courtesy  Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

In 1946, the March of Dimes introduced the use of the “poster child” into fundraising. Until this time, obviously ill or otherwise disabled children were used to generate sympathy and raise money. The March of Dimes, however, selected exceptionally beautiful, happy, and healthy children who bore some physical evidence of polio, such as a sling, crutches, or braces. Thus, polio was further demonized, Elizabeth Kenny’s physical therapy was promoted, and the March of Dimes was advertised as a way for all Americans to participate in healing these otherwise perfect children  (Seavey, Smith, & Wagner, 1998). 

This was also the first time that celebrities became involved in fundraising (Seavey, Smith, & Wagner, 1998). Franklin D. Roosevelt was open about his disease, which he contracted in 1921, and portrayed himself as having recovered from polio. His high profile status as the U.S. president gave the disease prominence, and Roosevelt became a role model for the thousands who contracted polio annually. Roosevelt was also instrumental in promoting the restoration of confidence in survivors as equally important to physical rehabilitation (Wilson, 2005). Other important celebrities involved in fundraising with the March of Dimes were Elvis Presley, who publicly received his Salk vaccine in order to raise awareness on the importance of being vaccinated, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly (Leavitt, 2013).

This 1954 March of Dimes – Walt Disney commercial may also be watched through YouTube

For further reading: 

Elizabeth Kenny

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Is Forgetting the Polio Epidemic

The Antibody Initiative. Preventing Polio. National Museum of American History. (click on images to enlarge)

Polio Survivors Association

There is No Cure for Polio, Primary Source Set, Digital Public Library of America

Polio on Trial (film). The Future of America’s Past.


Dell Orto, D. E. & Marinelli, R. P. (1995). Architectural accessibility. In Encyclopedia of Disability and Rehabilitation. (pp. 69-74). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Dell Orto, D. E. & Marinelli, R. P. (1995). Neuromuscular disorders. In Encyclopedia of Disability and Rehabilitation. (pp. 509-513). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Fitzpatrick, M. (2006). The Cutter Incident: How America’s first polio vaccine led to a growing vaccine crisis. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(3), 156.

Leavitt, D. (2013). March of Dimes supporters. PBS. Retrieved from

National Museum of American History: Behring Center. (n.d.). Whatever happened to polio? Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved from

Paul, J. R. (1971). A history of poliomyelitis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Seavey, N. G., Smith, J. S., & Wagner, P. (1998). A paralyzing fear: The triumph over polio in America. New York, NY: TV Books.

Wilson, D. J. (2005). Living with polio. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). Polio. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

2 Replies to “Polio”

  1. This is a fine report, except for the second sentence. The author writes, “Polio is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly works against the body, weakening or destroying the muscles (Dell Orto & Marinelli, 1995).” Actually, polio is caused by a virus. It is a contagious disease. The polio virus affects the body by attacking the central nervous system, specifically the anterior horn cells. These motor neurons are located in the front part of the spinal cord and are essential for any muscle activity. Robert P. Marinelli and Arthur E. Dell Orto are not medical doctors. They are both respected in their fields of psychology and sociology, but are not the best sources to use when defining a physical disease.

    • Hi Mr. Daggett,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I have made the correction above. I appreciate the feedback!


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