The History of Polio
A Hypertext Timeline - 1789 to 2000

Last updated 12-19-2023.

1789 - British physician Michael Underwood provides the first clinical description of polio, referring to it as "debility of the lower extremities.

1840 - German physician Jacob von Heine publishes a 78-page monograph which not only describes the clinical features of the disease, but also notes that its symptoms suggest the involvement of the spinal cord.

1894 - The first major polio epidemic reported in the United States occurs in Vermont, consisting of 132 total cases, including some adults.

1908 - Polio becomes a a reportable disease entity as Austrian physicians Karl Landsteiner and E. Popper identify the polio virus.

1909 - Massachusetts begins counting polio cases.

1916 - There is a large outbreak of polio in the United States. Though the total number of affected individuals is unknown, over 9000 cases are reported in New York City alone. Attempts at controlling the disease largely involve the use of isolation and quarantine, neither of which is successful.

1921 - Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) contracts polio and is left with severe paralysis.

1924 - FDR travels to Warm Springs, Georgia and checks into a cottage on the grounds of the dilapidated Meriwether Inn because of reports that the waters there could somehow "cure" paralysis.

1926 - FDR purchases the Meriwether Inn, and  the Warm Springs Foundation is formed.

1928 - Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw develop the iron lung, a large metal tank equipped with a pump that assists respiration, is field tested and goes into commercial production three years later.

1932 - FDR is elected president of the United States. The first and only U. S. president to use a wheelchair, he successfully hides the extent of his disability from the American public throughout his presidency.

1934 - There is a major outbreak of polio in Los Angeles. Nearly 2500 polio cases are treated from May through November of that year at Los Angeles County General Hospital alone. The first of the Birthday Balls, is held on FDR's birthday (Jan. 30) to raise money for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.

1935 - Physicians Maurice Brodie and John Kollmer compete against each other, with each trying to be the first to develop a successful polio vaccine. Field trials fail with disastrous results as the vaccines are blamed for causing many cases of polio, some of which are fatal.

1937 - FDR announces the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

1938 - Entertainer Eddie Canter coins the name "March of Dimes" as he urges radio listeners to send their spare change to the White House to be used by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in the fight against polio. The name sticks.

1940 - Sister Elizabeth Kenny travels from her native Australia to California where she is virtually ignored by the medical community. She then travels to Minnesota where she gives the first presentation in the United States to members of the Mayo Clinic staff regarding her procedures for treating polio patients by means of hot-packing and stretching affected limbs.

1942 - The first Sister Kenny Institute opens in Minneapolis.

1943 - The Sister Kenny Foundation is formed, and Kenny's procedures become the standard treatment for polio patients in the United States, replacing the ineffective traditional approaches of  "convalescent serum" and immobilization.

1941 - The United States enters World War II. Most of the best medical researchers, including Jonas Salk, either enter the military or work on military-related projects.

1945 - World War II ends. Large epidemics of polio in the U.S. occur immediately after the war with an average of more than 20,000 cases a year from 1945 to 1949.

1947 - Jonas Salk accepts a position in Pittsburgh at the new medical laboratory funded by the Sarah Mellon Scientific Foundation.

1948 - Salk's laboratory is one of four awarded research grants for the polio virus typing project. Salk decides to u se the newly developed tissue culture method of cultivating and working with the polio virus that has recently been developed by John Enders at Harvard University.  Other researchers, including Albert Sabin, who would later develop the oral polio vaccine, continue to do their work with monkeys infected with the polio virus, a more difficult and time-consuming process.

1952 - There are 58, 000 cases of polio in the United States, the most ever. Early versions of the Salk vaccine, using killed polio virus, are successful with small samples of patients at the Watson Home for Crippled Children and the Polk State School, a Pennsylvania facility for individuals with mental retardation.

1953 - Amid continued "polio hysteria," there are 35, 000 cases of polio in the United States.

1954 - Massive field trials of the Salk vaccine are sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

1955 - News of the successful vaccine trials is announced by Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. of the University of Michigan at a formal press conference held April 12 in Ann Arbor (the site where the research data from the field trials had been gathered and analyzed). A nationwide vaccination program is quickly started.

1957 - After a mass immunization campaign promoted by the March of Dines, there are only about 5600 cases of polio in the United States.

1958 and 1959 - Field trials prove the Sabin oral vaccine, which uses live, attenuated (weakened) virus, to be effective.

1962 - The Salk vaccine is replaced by the Sabin oral vaccine, which is not only superior in terms of ease of administration, but also provides longer-lasting immunization.

1964 - Only 121 cases of polio are reported nationally.

1974 - Dr.  Donald Mulder of the Mayo Clinic writes an article describing the "late progression of poliomyelitis."

1977 - The National Health Interview Survey reports that there are 254,000 persons living in the United States who had been paralyzed by polio. Some estimates place the number at more than 600, 000.

1979 - The last indigenous transmission of wild polio virus occurs in the U.S. All future cases are either imported or vaccine-related.

1981 - Time Magazine reports that many polio survivors are experiencing late effects of the disease.

1984 - Researchers, including Dr. Lauro Halstead, organize a conference at Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation because of growing concerns about the late effects of polio (post-polio syndrome).

1988 - With approximately 350, 000 cases of polio occurring worldwide, the World Health Organization passes a resolution to eradicate polio by the year 2000.

1993 -  The total number of reported polio cases worldwide falls to about 100, 000. Most of these cases occur in Asia and Africa. Dr. Albert Sabin dies at age 86.

1993 - China launches its first National Immunization Days, immunizing 80 million children! The entire Western Hemisphere is certified as "polio free."

1995 - India follows China's lead and organizes its first National Immunization Days. More than 87 million children are immunized! Dr. Jonas Salk dies at age 80.

1997 - The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial opens on May 2.

1999 - More than 450 million children are vaccinated, including nearly 147 million in India. In the 11 years since the World Health Assembly Initiative, the number of reported cases worldwide has fallen to approximately 7000.

2000+ - Wars, natural disasters, and poverty prevent the complete eradication of polio. Go to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative current information on outbreaks of poliomyelitis.

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Much of the information on this page is from Chapter 1 of my book, Polio's Legacy: An Oral History   (Sass, 1996) which is available from University Press of America  This page was posted by Edmund Sass, Ed. D.. You may e-mail him at