Jonas Salk Google doodle: a good reminder of the power of vaccines
Jonas Salk Google doodle: a good reminder of the power of vaccines
The story of the vaccine’s development is just one part of a rich and intertwined history of scientific discovery and controversy
Google doodle marks the 100th birth anniversary of Jonas Salk, who pioneered the first polio vaccine. Photograph: Google.com
In 1954, over 300,000 doctors, nurses, schoolteachers and other volunteers across the United States, Canada and Finland took part in one of the most complex and monumental medical trials in history. The plan was to test the effectiveness of a newly-developed vaccine for a disease that was devastating the lives of children across the US: polio. 

It was a mammoth task – a double-blind experiment, in which 650,000 schoolchildren were given the vaccine, 750,000 were given a placebo, and over 400,000 children acted as a control group and were given neither. For taking part, each participant was given a sweet and a certificate proclaiming their role as a ‘Polio Pioneer’. The results, announced in 1955, were just as monumental: the vaccine was safe and effective. As a direct result of the development of the vaccine, polio was completely eradicated in the US by 1979.

The vaccine itself was the result of years of tireless work by a researcher based at the University of Pittsburgh called Jonas Salk, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated in a Google doodle today. The doodle shows two children holding up a sign that says “Thank you, Dr Salk!” – echoing the gratitude expressed by many Americans when the results were announced. But the story of Salk’s search for a vaccine isn’t one that should be told in isolation, stopping with the elimination of polio in the US. Instead, it sits within a rich tapestry of stories about scientific discovery and progress.

In order to develop a new vaccine, Salk needed cell cultures that he could first infect with polio, and then test the treatment. The cells that he used are known as HeLa cells, which in themselves carry a fascinating history. HeLa cells are an immortalised cell line, that can be grown in the lab for prolonged periods of time. 

The name comes from an abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks, the person from whom the cell line originated. In 1951, Lacks was undergoing radiation treatment for cervical cancer. During one of these sessions, doctors performed a biopsy – without her permission – to remove samples of healthy and cancerous cells from her cervix. These cells would eventually end up becoming the first line of human cells that could be successfully and persistently reproduced in a lab, and have since been used in countless studies ranging from cancer research, to seeing what happens to human flesh in space. But in recent years, the story of HeLa cells has also become one of patient privacy and respect, when the HeLa genome was published in 2013 without the knowledge or consent of her family.

Aside from cell cultures, Salk needed something else to develop his vaccine: money. In 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes Foundation) was set up in order to raise awareness and funds for the polio epidemic in the US. As public concern about the disease grew, so too did the foundations budget – from $1.8m in 1938 to $67m in 1955. Salk found an ally in the then-head of the NFIP, Basil O’Connor, who gladly funded the new vaccine research. But it wasn’t just polio that benefitted from the March of Dimes. 

In 1952, a young American molecular biologist called James Watson received a grant from the foundation to travel to the University of Cambridge. There, he met Francis Crick, and in 1953 discovered the structure of DNA. Since then, funding from the March of Dimes has gone to eight Nobel prize winners.
One other aspect of Salk’s story still plays a vital role in the development and use of vaccines today: public support. In many ways, the 1954 field tests of the polio vaccine are a major success story in public health and scientific engagement – according to some sources, a Gallup poll that year showed that more Americans knew about the trials than could give the full name of then president, Dwight Eisenhower. In short, it appeared that there was unprecedented support for the vaccine.

It is therefore a sad and strange irony that there now appears to be a growing backlash against vaccines in the US and UK – particularly the MMR vaccine. Since Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent paper in 1998 purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, incidences of measles and mumps have risen greatly. Despite this, and despite studies showing clear costs to society when vaccine rates drop, antivaccinationists still insist on ignoring the evidence when it comes to immunising children. It therefore seems like the celebration of Salk’s 100th birthday is an apt time to remember how hugely important vaccination is – not just on an individual level, but for public health as a whole.

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