From The Vault: Dr. Albert Sabin saved the world from polio

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Posted at 8:05 AM, Apr 21, 2016
and last updated 2020-07-29 15:20:57-04

CINCINNATI – Before Dr. Albert Sabin's oral polio vaccine could wipe out the crippling disease worldwide, he set out to give it one final test in Cincinnati in April, 1960.

The one-time dental student turned pediatrician, professor and medical researcher – he started working at Children's Hospital and the University of Cincinnati in 1939 - had already proved his vaccine safe and effective. He began years before by testing it on himself and his two kids, then on volunteer inmates at a prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1954.

The United States, though, delayed its approval of Sabin's vaccine. So Sabin, whose family immigrated from Polish Russia, shared it with the Soviet Union, America's "enemy" in the Cold War. An estimated 63 million Russians took Sabin's vaccine before more than a few hundred Americans did.

Polio had swept through the United States since the turn of the century, crippling more than 1 million children and leading to thousands of deaths. It also attacked adults in small numbers – Franklin D. Roosevelt was crippled by polio when he was 39 - 12 years before he became president. In 1952, there were 21,969 cases in the U.S. alone. Nearly 60,000 children around the world were infected with the virus, more than 3,000 died and thousands more were paralyzed in their legs or bodily functions. Some had to be encased in iron lungs because they couldn't breathe on their own.

The polio virus, which spread from person to person, caused a national panic. Parents were afraid to let their children swim with others or have close contact. They worried that every fever was a symptom of polio.

Dr. Helen Glueck, a UC medical student in the 1930s who became a well-known researcher in her own right, remembered how frustrating it was to walk through a polio ward without a cure or even a treatment.

"You didn't know whether they were going to live, whether they were going to die, whether they were going to be paralyzed," Glueck told WCPO years ago, "and there you were, a doctor trying to help, and there was nothing to help with."

WATCH Sabin and Glueck in the video here.

Sabin wasn't the first to come up with an effective polio vaccine. Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh introduced one in 1955, and polio cases started dropping. There were several major differences between Salk's and Sabin's vaccines, but perhaps the biggest was this: Salk's required a series of shots; Sabin's was administered in a spoonful of sugary cherry syrup (and later, a sugar cube.) You don't need Mary Poppins to tell you which one was more popular with kids.

Sabin and Salk became bitter rivals. There may have been some jealousy involved. Salk, after all, was first and got a Time magazine cover story. Sabin mocked Salk's vaccine, calling it "pure kitchen chemistry." The truth was Sabin's was cheaper, easier to distribute and more effective because it contained a live but weak strain of the poliovirus, while Salk's used a "killed virus." Sabin's live strain could identify and kill stronger strains. Because of the live strain, non-vaccinated people could "catch" the immunity in Sabin's vaccine just like catching the disease itself.

Six decades ago, polio was still one of the most feared diseases, but Sabin was convinced that was about to change. Until 1960, his vaccine had not been tested on a large scale in the U.S. He had arranged with the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine and the Cincinnati Board of Health to provide a free oral vaccine to every pre-school child in the city, starting on Sunday, April 24, 1960, and continuing each day that week.

Sabin went on TV to explain that he believed his vaccine could wipe out polio completely and this was a test to see if he could effectively vaccinate every child – 3 months old to 6 years old - in an American city.

It was called "Sabin Sunday," and doctors offices, health clinics and hospitals throughout the city opened their doors to long lines of children and parents. Some 20,000 kids received the vaccine on the first day.

Paul Andrews Jr., a lab tech at Children's who worked with Sabin for 18 years, called it "a busy time, but a happy time."

"You could see it in the children as they came to the hospital. You could tell they knew something big was going on," he said.

Sabin, a demanding, no-nonsense boss, was in "a great mood. He was just ecstatic," Andrews said.

"I felt like a part of history that day."

"If this much was done on the first day," said Sabin, "it looks like our hope of getting all or at least the vast majority of children inoculated will be fulfilled."

Sabin and Andrews were both right in their predictions.

More communities in Hamilton County joined in the rest of the week, and some 60,000 children received the vaccine.

Sabin and the city board of health agreed to expand it to school-age children. Despite fears from the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine, Sabin Sunday repeated for two more weeks in Hamilton County and vaccinated 186,000 kids. Sabin declared that Cincinnati was the first polio-free zone in the U.S.

After the U.S finally approved the Sabin vaccine, Chicago and other cities joined in. U.S. officials publicly endorsed Sabin's vaccine over Salk's, and after that Sabin's was used almost exclusively in the U.S. and worldwide by the World Health Organization.

By 1962, the number of new polio cases in the U.S. fell below 1,000.

By 1974, there were only seven reported cases.

By 1979, the U.S. was polio-free, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And polio is on the verge of being eliminated from the world, with only 22 reported cases in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan in 2017, according to the WHO.

After 30 years in Cincinnati, Sabin left in 1969 and moved to Israel, then retired in Washington, D.C. He continued to work to immunize children in underdeveloped counties for a variety of diseases.

It's not an exaggeration to say Sabin's vaccine changed the world, and he never patented it or took a dime for it, a biographer said.

The people Sabin saved from polio never forgot him. When he was hospitalized in 1983, he received 100,000 letters.

"To read those letters, I can't even tell you the feeling it gives me. It makes me feel that what I did was somehow worthwhile," Sabin said. "You always have a feeling of doubting whether what you have done with your life is truly worthwhile … People forget. But these letters … as long as I live, these letters will give me a feeling of warmth."

READ letters to Sabin, his biography and his entire research archive at

In 1986, Sabin went to a White House ceremony where President Reagan presented him with the nation's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom.

"No one could have known that he would number among the most prominent immigrants of our century," Sabin's award citation said.

When Sabin died in 1993, President Clinton called him "one of the great heroes of American medicine." Sabin, 86, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2006, the good doctor's face appeared on a commemorative U.S. postage stamp.

Ironically, Sabin has not been as highly regarded in his adopted city and the site of his greatest achievements. When the city renamed Second Street "Pete Rose Way" after he broke baseball's hit record in 1985, the New York Times took notice and criticized Cincinnati for not honoring Sabin with more than a sliver of land downtown. The headline was "On The Cincinnati Streets, it's Rose 1, Sabin 0."

Before that, there was a drive to rename Elland Avenue near Children's Hospital Medical Center for Sabin. According to a 1999 Enquirer article, Sabin's former boss and adversary squashed that idea.

“If we begin naming streets in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine area for famous people, it would be very difficult to accommodate all the deserving people without creating ill will among colleges, departments within the colleges and individuals within the departments.” Dr. Edward Pratt, then director of Children's Hospital Research Foundation, wrote in a letter to then city council member Bobbie Sterne.

“It was unfortunate that that letter was written, but (Pratt and Sabin) weren't the best of friends,” said Dr. William Schubert, retired chief of Children's Hospital who eventually succeeded Pratt.

In 1986, the city finally made good to Sabin by naming the newly expanded Convention Center after him. They even held a grand ceremony and brought Sabin and his family to town. But three years later, the city sold the naming rights and Sabin's name disappeared from the entrance.

When Sabin died, the all-Republican county commission considered renaming Cross County Highway in his honor. But they decided to name it for Reagan instead.

The city eventually did change Elland Way to Albert Sabin Way. Somehow, it seems lacking.


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