Old photo of Jonas Salk with nurses helping a child
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4 stories about Pitt’s vaccine legacy, 68 years after the first public polio shots

  • Health and Wellness
  • Innovation and Research
  • Our City/Our Campus

On Feb. 23, 1954, children at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh received the first shots of a vaccine against a deadly virus. It would take 25 years and a nationwide effort for polio to be eradicated in the U.S., but a team lead by the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk took the bold first steps.

As the world deals with the ongoing effects of another deadly virus, Pitt remains a leader in vaccine research. You’ll see some familiar themes in the four stories below, not to mention a through line between Pitt’s groundbreaking research 68 years ago and the work happening today.

First-person accounts from polio pioneers

In a 2005 Pitt Med magazine story, Senior Editor Elaine Vitone gives a glimpse into the lives of parents and students (PDF) when the polio vaccine first became available. The piece weaves together first-person accounts from a nurse and several schoolchildren who recount anxiety as the “polio pioneers” received their doses — and their celebration when the vaccine was successful. You can also listen to a Pitt Medcast episode inspired by the story.

A reporter’s story of vaccine success

John Troan was a young reporter for the now-shuttered Pittsburgh Press when he caught wind that Salk’s team was about to test the polio vaccine in humans. A 2002 Pitt Med magazine article follows Troan’s reporting on the path from Jonas Salk inoculating himself and his family to covering the success of a trial involving almost 2 million children.

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A Q&A with Jonas Salk’s son

Peter Salk, Jonas Salk’s son, is a Pitt professor of infectious diseases and microbiology and an outspoken proponent of vaccination. In this Q&A from April 2021, Salk answers questions about life before the polio vaccine, trust and distrust of vaccines, and what we can learn today from the 1954 drive to protect children from the deadly virus.

From polio to COVID-19

A free half-hour documentary called “Chasing Covid” takes a look at work happening in Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, led by Paul Duprex, the Jonas Salk Chair for Vaccine Research. Directed by Senior Lecturer of Film & Media Studies Carl Kurlander, the documentary draws parallels between the battles against polio and COVID-19 and describes the process of creating vaccines from start to finish — emphasizing that then, as now, it’s a team effort. 

Still need your COVID-19 vaccine or booster? Here’s how to get them on the Pittsburgh campus.


— Patrick Monahan