Whatever Happened to Polio? Exhibition

This website, Whatever Happened to Polio?, was created in conjunction with a temporary gallery exhibition, installed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibition opened on April 12, 2005, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the announcement that Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was safe and effective and closed on April 12, 2006.

Whatever Happened to Polio? highlighted the polio vaccine clinical trials; the history of the American polio epidemics that began in 1894 and peaked in 1952; the medical, orthotic, and assistive technology used by medical practitioners and people who had polio, including a pair of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leg braces; FDR’s role in founding the March of Dimes and establishing Warm Springs as a polio rehabilitation center; and stories of how the people who had polio went on to influence American life and culture, in ways as disparate as the disability rights movement and the creation of Mars candy bars (Frank Mars learned candy making while home-schooled by his mother). The impact of polio on medical practice and public health policy was also explored.

The science of polio was explained with two bronze, scientifically accurate, touchable sculptures of the poliovirus in action. The virus models, especially commissioned for the exhibition, were designed by a biochemist and cast at an art foundry in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The exhibition also included an iron lung and a working rocking bed. The technology of the iron lung was further explored through a miniature working version of the tank respirator—visitors can place an arm inside, feel the pressure change, and hear the sound of the vacuum pump.

The global collaboration of Rotary International, UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and national governments is the latest chapter in the history of polio. International efforts started in the 1980s to stop the transmission of poliovirus have drastically reduced the number of countries in which poliovirus is circulating, and the goal of ending forever the threat of poliovirus is nearly achieved. The dramatic story of National Immunization Days is recounted through vaccine coolers and other tools of the field vaccinator of today.

The Museum’s Hands On Science Center had an activity especially created to complement the exhibition, based on the science behind antibody assay.

In the Gallery

The exhibition was located in a second floor west gallery, next to the Star-Spangled Banner.

The gallery featured an educator who directed activities for visitors of all ages, about such things as the surprising connection of polio to the game of Candy Land, the history of immunization, and how National Immunization Days are organized. Children had their pinky fingers marked after completing an activity, the way field vaccinators in India and Africa mark the fingers of children after vaccination.

There were regularly scheduled gallery talks by pediatricians, people who had participated in National Immunization Days, people who have had polio, scientists working on viruses and in molecular medicine, and nurses who worked in polio wards.

The exhibit design incorporated the principles of Universal Design. It included tactile-audio maps of the gallery space, spotlight sound with audio description, and other design details for independence and usability.


Presenting Sponsor
March of Dimes

Also Sponsored By
Rotary International
Salk Institute for Biological Studies

With Additional Support From
Department of Health and Human Services,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
M & R Management Company


Whatever Happened to Polio? is a collective effort of the staff of the National Museum of American History, Behring Center.

The Museum gratefully acknowledges all individuals, organizations, and corporations who gave their time and support to the exhibition, or lent or donated objects that appear in Whatever Happened to Polio?

Vejune Baltrusaitis
David Belnap
Janine Bertram
Ray Bloomer
Tom Blum
Jim Bostrom
Carol Boyer
John Britt
Crawford Brown
Karen Carolonza
Richard Castiello
CBS 60 Minutes
Jean Csaposs
Richard Daggett
Ciro de Quadros
Judy Dixon
Kim Dowds
Lynne Dunphy
Barbara Eckhardt
Thomas Fetterman
Anne Finger
Eileen Finn
Vivien Fiore
Michelle Frauenberger
Hugh Gregory Gallagher
Jean-Marc Giboux
Georgia Gibson
Allen I. Goldberg
Marcelo Guimaraes
Doris Haag
Yvonne Hardman
Joan Headley
Sharon Heffelfinger
Edna Hindson
James Hogle
Jennifer Howse

Whitey Ilvess
John Ipekjian
Yuko Ishida
Ed Jackson
Babs Johnson
Cyndi Jones
Katie Jones
Barbara Kalavik
Samuel Katz
Bob Keegan
Jeffrey Kluger
Laura Kreiss
Benjamin Lawless
Margery LeTourneau
Link Studio
Paul Longmore
Ansel Lurio
Ruth Lusher
Alex Magoun
Renee D. Mastrocco
Angela Matysiak
Jeff Meade
Edgar Meyer
Lorenzo Milam
Zeinab Mohtadi
Valerie Morelli
Allison Murphy
Richard Murphy
Jackie Noyes
Tom Olin
David Oshinsky
Carol Pandak
Vincent Racaniello
Octavian Robinson
Naomi Rogers
David Rose

Anna Rubin
Heloisa Sabin
Darrell Salk
Maria Scheers-Master
Nina Seavey
Bill Sergeant
John Sever
Jean-Yves Sgro
Mike Shadix
Marc Shell
Tatiana Shukhin
Tobin Siebers
Ary Silva
Julie Silver
Society for Disability Studies
Bruce Stevenson
Steven Stewart
Jennifer Sutton
Monica Swinney
Margaret Tearman
Selma Thomas
Bethany Thompson
Shannon Tomac
John Troan
Marcia Turcato
Leandro Umali
Susan Van Der Meulen
Jack Warner
Joy Weeber
Marina Weiss
Thomas Weller
Dan Wilson
Eckard Wimmer
Kim Witmer
Leslie Young
Jessica Yu