Dr. Albert Sabin’s Polio Vaccine Legacy

“A lot of people insisted that I should patent the vaccine, but I didn’t want to do that. It’s my gift to all the world’s children.” – Dr. Albert Sabin

Black and white portrait of Dr. Albert Sabin in his elderly years, with white hair, glasses, a mustache, and wearing a suit with a tie and a lapel pin.
Dr. Albert Sabin

Polio terrified Americans and many worldwide in the mid-20th century as it ravaged society, often impacting young children in debilitating ways. In one of the worst years in the U.S., 1952 saw about 60,000 children infected, 21,000 paralyzed, and over 3,000 passed away.

Then came a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. It was the first effective one, turning a feared global epidemic into a preventable disease. However, it had drawbacks, particularly in requiring the vaccine to be administered via injection, which could be logistically challenging.

Dr. Albert Sabin, who had been researching polio for nearly three decades, devised a solution to the problem. He introduced a vaccine that used a weakened form of the poliovirus and could be taken orally, on a sugar lump for children in particular. This made it easier to distribute and administer, especially in areas with limited medical infrastructure. It became the backbone of global polio eradication efforts, particularly in the developing world.

For Albert, an immigrant to the U.S. from Russia (Poland today), this achievement was arguably his most important as a researcher on viruses and viral diseases. He continued his research while taking on other social causes, including inequality and hunger. About the latter, Albert would say,

“Unfortunately, nations are not guided by love and reason. Consequently we must find a common enemy. That enemy is poverty, disease, and despair.…Just like this nation learned 100 years ago that it cannot survive half free and half slave, the world must now realize that we cannot survive one-third fed and two-thirds starved.”

Albert passed away at the age of 86 in 1993.

Notes

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