History of Polio

The Disease

Poliomyelitis, often called polio, is an acute viral infectious disease spread from person to person.
Poliomyelitis has been known at least since ancient times. An ancient Egyptian stele, for example, shows an apparently healthy man with a withered leg thought to be the result of polio (see the photograph at the top of this page). The Roman emperor Claudius walked with a limp which is also believed to have been an after-effect of polio. The first clinical description of the disease was written in Great Britain by physician Michael Underwood in 1789. It came to be known as “Heine-Medin disease” when the first medical report of polio by Jakob Heine (1840) was followed by the first empirical study of it by Karl Oskar Medin (1890). Because epidemics primarily struck children, polio was also called “infantile paralysis”.
Until the end of the 19th century, polio most often affected children from 6 months to 4 years of age. Infection at an early age generally left the victims with light consequences and permanent immunity to reinfection. Ironically, improved sanitation in cities in the 20th century led to fewer exposures to the polio virus and, therefore, fewer opportunities to become immune to it. This led to victims being struck in later childhood and even early adulthood, and to victims being more strongly affected by the disease. Rates of paralysis and death from the disease greatly increased. Coming to a peak in the early 1950s, the death rate from polio reached 5% and the paralysis rate climbed to 37%.


“Polio: Combating the Crippler”

Audio and Video Reports. CBC Digital Archives, 1955-2002. English – French.
The CBC Archives website presents several video and audio clips of polio devastation in Canada. From the 1950’s polio peak to Post-Polio Syndrome, those reports lift the veil on the many aspects of polio in Canada.
You can also watch Radio-Canada’s reports.


Health Heritage Research Services

Featuring Resources on the History of Poliomyelitis in Canada, written by Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D.


The Iron Lung

The iron lung was invented at Harvard University and tested at the Boston Children’s Hospital in 1928. This bulky device in which a polio victim was placed during acute infection (see photograph at the top of this page) worked by changing the air pressure inside the chamber. This forced lungs to breathe when they were too weakened by the infection to function on their own. Though it saved thousands of lives, the iron lung was neither a preventative nor a cure for polio.
To have more information about the Iron Lung, click here.


The Vaccines

The first attempt to create a polio vaccine was made in 1935 by Maurice Brodie at New York University. He used the virus found in monkey spinal cords, but this did not lead to immunity in humans.
In the early 1950s, a group of researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital grew the polio virus in human tissue. This breakthrough led to the successful development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. The Salk vaccine proved to be up to 70% effective against poliovirus type 1, more than 90% effective against poliovirus types 2 and 3, and against bulbar polio.
Mass immunization campaigns followed and the rate of polio infection in industrialized countries dropped dramatically. By 1994, polio was entirely eradicated from the Americas and it was eliminated from Europe in 2002.