On the afternoon of April 16, 1955, there was noticeable buzz at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. Why? Pittsburgh’s newest international star, Dr. Jonas Salk, was coming home. A crowd of 500 proud locals, many of them children, anxiously waited for the doctor’s plane to land.
“No public reception is planned, but County and City police will be assigned to the Airport to handle the people who may wish to cheer his victory,” said a Pittsburgh Press article that day.
Salk arrived in Pittsburgh on the heels of his most notable accomplishment: the successful application of a vaccine to cure polio. After seven years of experimentation and testing, largely conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, the scientist’s team reported the vaccine a success.
Salk-related headlines sprang up all over the country; he quickly became known as the miraculous man who cured a disease that had affected more than half a million Americans in the preceding 40 years.
Salk, though, was not well-liked by his peers.
While some scientists were purely petty, others argued Salk had “not played fair” by using unconventional means of creating a vaccine.
A few in his field thought it was “unthinkable” that Salk should receive all the credit for the polio vaccination. Scientists who came before Salk set the foundation for the work he did, but despite their research and experimentation, they were not as widely recognized.
Through the success and criticism, Salk knew he still had work to do. Unsatisfied with a vaccine that was only 80 to 90 percent effective, the New York native set his sights on perfecting the shot by returning to his Pittsburgh lab for further research.
Meanwhile, starting in late April 1955, thousands of Pittsburgh children were vaccinated in local schools. The first mass inoculation in Allegheny County occurred the Monday after Salk’s return, and city school children did not receive shots until 10 days later.
Pittsburghers warmly welcomed home their “adopted local boy” after the initial invention, and the happiness and gratefulness spread across the country. People hung up “THANK YOU SALK” posters in store windows, held celebrations, and commemorated the day the invention broke through.
Ten years after the vaccine’s initial success, the United States no longer claimed polio as a major health concern. And the public loved Salk for it.