Today In Science History – October 28 – Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine in 1956. Credit: Yousuf Karsh-Public Domain

October 28 is Jonas Salk’s birthday. Salk was an American physician best known for developing the first effective polio vaccine.

Polio, or Infantile Paralysis, was an epidemic during most of the early 20th Century. One victim brought national attention to the disease by being President of the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from polio and established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to raise funds to fight the disease and care for those who had it. The Foundation began a national radio program effort asking for just a dime from each family. The “March of Dimes” was an annual drive for funds and eventually, the Foundation renamed itself. Salk was a researcher who was sponsored by the Foundation. He was working on flu vaccines before turning his attention to a polio vaccine.

Salk’s polio vaccine approach was different from previous vaccines. Most virus vaccines of the time used small amounts of a live weakened virus to encourage the body’s immune system to recognize the virus. The immune system would create antibodies to fight off the virus and be prepared if the patient is ever exposed again to the virus. This technique works well with virus infections like smallpox and rabies. The problem is, if the body can’t deal with the live virus, there is a chance the virus could propagate and infect the patient. Salk believed a body’s immune system could build up the required antibodies from an inactive or ‘killed’ form of the virus without the risk of infection.

This approach proved very effective. Salk’s vaccine provided protection for 90% of people receiving two doses of the vaccine. This rose to 99% after a third dose. At the time of the vaccine’s release in 1955, there were nearly 50,000 cases of polio in the United States. By 1962, there were less than 1,000. Salk did not patent his vaccine hoping this would allow it to be quickly and widely distributed around the world.

Finding a cure for this serious problem made Salk a household name. Salk would go on to form the Salk Institute for Biological Studies dedicated to the study of diseases and their cures. The Institute was formed from $20 Million from the March of Dimes and land donated by the city of San Diego, California. For over 50 years, the Institute has made advances in cancer and disease research.

Notable Science History Events for October 28

2005 – Richard Smalley Died.

Buckyball or Buckminsterfullerene

A buckminsterfullerene C60 molecule, also known as a buckyball.

Smalley was an American chemist and one of the three men who share the 1966 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of carbon fullerenes.

Fullerenes are a class of molecules consisting entirely of carbon atoms that form three dimensional shapes, such as spheres, tubes, and ellipsoids. Along with Smalley, Harold Kroto and Robert Curl discovered the existence of the carbon-60 allotrope known as buckminsterfullerene. Buckminsterfullerenes, or “buckyballs” are arranged in a spherical shape and joined much like the leather pattern in a soccer ball. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, an architect known for designing geodesic dome structures of the same shape.

Richard Smalley is considered one of the pioneers of the young field of nanotechnology. Fullerenes are opening several new directions of research in materials science and electronics.

1971 – England launches Prospero.

Black Arrow Rocket

Black Arrow Rocket or “The Lipstick Rocket” in its launch cradle.

Prospero was the first British satellite launched by a British rocket. The satellite was designed to take part in experiments with communication technologies.

Britain’s space program had several technical difficulties getting their Black Arrow rockets to successfully launch. The program had been canceled by the Ministry of Defence, but the development team wanted one more try. The original name of the satellite was ‘Puck’ after the ‘merry wanderer of the night’ in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck was renamed Prospero after Shakespeare’s character in The Tempest.

The Black Arrow (or affectionately known as ‘The lipstick rocket’ after it’s bright red nose cone.) successfully reached orbit, but the final stage continued to boost after separation and knocked off one of Prospero’s antennae. Even so, the satellite continued to function until 1996 when it was shut down. It is still in low-Earth orbit and is expected to re-enter the atmosphere in 2070, 100 years after it was launched. 

1916 – Cleveland Abbe died.

Cleveland Abbe

Cleveland Abbe (1838 – 1916)

Abbe was an American meteorologist who established a network of weather stations connected by telegraph to make daily weather reports and issue weather alerts. This system was expanded when he became the first head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, forerunner of the National Weather Service.

Abbe divided the country into four time-zones to keep the time keeping between weather stations consistent. He managed to convince the railroad companies to adopt this same time system since they shared Western Union’s telegraph network. These time-zones were formally adopted in 1884.

1914 – Jonas Salk was born.

1914 – Richard Laurence Millington Synge was born.

Chromatography Fraction Collector. Lambda Omnicoll (Wikimedia Commons)

Chromatography Fraction Collector. Lambda Omnicoll (Wikimedia Commons)

Synge was an English biochemist who shares the 1952 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Archer John Porter Martin for the invention of partition chromatography. Partition chromatography is a technique to separate similar substances by repeated extraction by two immiscible liquids. It can separate amino acids to aid in the study of proteins, carbohydrates, and DNA.

1912 – Richard Doll was born.

Richard Doll

Richard Doll (1912 – 2005)

Doll was a British doctor who was the first to link smoking to health problems. He showed a link between smoking and lung cancer and an increase in heart disease. His research also established links between asbestos and lung cancer, leukemia and radiation, and alcohol and breast cancer.

Doll helped form Britain’s National Blood Service and National Health Service.

1893 – Christopher Kelk Ingold was born.

Christopher Kelk Ingold

Christopher Kelk Ingold (1893 – 1970)

Ingold was a British chemist who pioneered physical organic chemistry. He introduced the idea of nucleophiles and electrophiles in reaction mechanisms. Nucleophiles are substances that donate electron pairs and electrophiles accept electron pairs.

He also partly established the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog sequence rules to name stereoisomers of molecules. These rules take into account the components and priority of substituents within the molecules to assign the terminology used to name the molecule. These rules were formally adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) which defines nomenclature used by chemists.

1841 – Johan August Arfwedson died.

Johan August Arfwedson

Johan August Arfwedson (1792 – 1841)

Arfwedson was a Swedish chemist who discovered the element lithium. He isolated lithium salt from the mineral petalite. Pure lithium would be isolated by Humphry Davy using electrolysis.

1794 – Robert Liston was born.

Robert Liston

Robert Liston (1794 – 1847)

Liston was a Scottish surgeon who was the first European doctor to incorporate the use of anesthesia in an operation. Ether had been successfully used in the United States in 1846 by Dr. William T. G. Morgan two months earlier. He also invented a type of locking forceps to clamp arteries and a leg splint to immobilize the femur still in use today.

He was also known as “the fastest knife in the West End”. It was believed the best chance for a surgery patient to survive a procedure was to have it over as quickly as possible. Liston was known to complete operations in record times. He supposedly managed to amputate a leg in only two and a half minutes. Unfortunately for the patient, in his haste, Liston removed the patient’s testicles as well.

Fun trivia: Liston is known for another amputation procedure where he managed to remove the leg in under 2 and a half minutes. During the operation, he cut off the fingers of his assistant and slashed the coat of a viewing physician. The patient and assistant both died from gangrene after the operation and the viewing physician dropped dead of fright. This was said to be the only operation in history with a 300% mortality rate.

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