The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Marks 50th Anniversary of the Polio Vaccine

New Exhibition Explores Complicated History of a Medical Miracle
April 10, 2005

Most young people in the United States have no memory of polio, a devastating viral infection. Those over 55 years of age probably remember summers when whole communities shut down as families kept children home out of fear of exposure to polio. Today, transmission of polio worldwide has nearly ended. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will mark the 50th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s introduction of a successful polio vaccination with “Whatever Happened to Polio?,” a one-year display scheduled to open on April 12, 2005, the anniversary of the announcement of an effective vaccine. The March of Dimes is the presenting sponsor of the exhibition, with additional funding from Rotary International and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

“Whatever Happened to Polio?,” will tell the story of the polio epidemic in the United States, the vaccine development, current world efforts to stop polio transmission and the story of survivors and the influences they have had on American society. The exhibition also will explore some of the changes in American medicine in the 20th century and the impact a disease can have on society as a whole. The show draws upon the themes of community activism, human resilience, the development and use of medical technologies and medical science and competition and rivalry in science. By examining the complicated history of polio and the vaccine that was hailed as a “medical miracle” in the 1950s, the exhibition provides a better understanding of science, health and the impact of collective action on society.

“The introduction of a successful polio vaccine in 1955 was one of the most significant events of the 20th-century. The disease has had far-reaching effects both in the lives of communities and individuals and in unexpected places in American society,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This exhibition looks at the importance of both Jonas Salk’s and Albert Sabin’s polio vaccines and reminds us of the ways that the past informs the present.” 

Significant objects in the exhibition include a syringe used during the clinical trials 1954 and 1955 by Jonas Salk; an iron lung; a chest respirator; objects from disability activists Justin Dart, who was instrumental in the Americans with Disabilities Act and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Ed Roberts, who integrated the U.C. Berkeley campus in the 1960s and was a founder of the independent living movement; a gene synthesizer; equipment used today by vaccinators in India and Africa; and leg braces worn by President Franklin D. Roosevelt--the most famous polio survivor in America. A particularly intriguing object from the museum’s collections is a piece of 70-year-old cake from one of the Birthday Ball fundraisers held by the March of Dimes in honor of President Roosevelt.

Poliomyelitis is a viral disease that primarily affects the motor neurons that control muscles, especially those of the limbs, breathing and swallowing and can cause paralysis and sometimes death. As a result of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, the last case of wild polio occurred in the United States in 1979. A massive international public-private sector collaboration began in the 1980s with the goal of eliminating transmission of poliovirus everywhere in the world. 

The museum is designing the exhibition according to principles of Universal Design, a design aesthetic of seven principles with roots in the disability accessibility movement, and to exceed current federal standards for accessibility. 

A companion Web site will be available April 11 at

The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at or call (202) 633-1000 or 357-1729 (TTY).

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