The Polio History Pages

Last updated 12-18-23.

Polio, or more properly poliomyelitis, was one of the most feared and studied diseases of the first half of the 20th Century. It appeared unpredictably, striking its victims, mostly children, with a frightening randomness that resulted in near panic during the epidemics of the 1940s and 50s. Then, in 1955, a breakthrough occurred when, after massive field trials involving nearly two-million children, the Salk vaccine was shown to be effective in preventing the disease. Today, polio is all-but-forgotten as it has been nearly eradicated from developed countries. Polio's legacy remains, however. It is estimated  that there are 600,000 polio survivors living in the United States, and the number worldwide must be in the tens of millions.

Drawing from my book, Polio's Legacy: An Oral History, this site provides everything teachers need to include information on polio in their unit on the 1950s or the history of disease, including excerpts from polio narratives; a polio timeline; and information about the disease, its history, and its late effects. The materials provided here should also be quite useful to students doing school reports on polio. If you have a specific question about polio, e-mail me at, and I will do my best to answer it.

Site Index:
What is Poliomyelitis?
Basic information about the disease and some of its mysteries.

Poliomyelitis: A Brief History
A slightly revised version of the history chapter from Polio's Legacy. Remembering Polio: A Ghost from Summers Past

An article summarizing our oral history project.     

A Polio Timeline
A clickable timeline from the 1700s to 2000.

Remembering Polio: A Ghost from Summers Past
An article based on our oral history project.

Excerpts from the Polio Interviews
Excerpts organized by topic with a clickable index.

A Polio History Quest

A set of 25 questions, complete with a printable worksheet, coinciding with the information within the Polio History Pages. See also, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Disability

References for These Pages
The bibliography.

Links to Other Polio Pages

An annotated list, not only of pages dealing with polio history, but also links to pages about the polio virus, polio vaccines, global eradication efforts, and post-polio syndrome.

Most of the information on these pages comes from my book, Polio's Legacy: An Oral History. If you would like to obtain a copy, contact your school or public library. If they do not have a copy on hand, they should be able to obtain one through interlibrary loan.


This page was published by Edmund J. Sass, Ed. D., Professor Emeritus of Education
at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University.

You may reach him at Last updated November 22, 2015.