Hundreds of reporters and scientists scrambled to the front of the Rackham Auditorium on the morning of April 12, 1954 as Thomas Francis, a professor in the School of Public Health, declared that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was “safe, effective and potent.”

Francis reported that data collected proved Salk’s polio vaccine between 80 and 90 percent effective. The results were taken from an intensive field study of elementary school children.

The announcement marked one of the final steps toward near-elimination of polio in the United States.

Salk and Francis were long-time colleagues before they found themselves addressing the Rackham crowd. In 1942, shortly after being appointed to chair of the University’s department of epidemiology, Francis hired Salk as a research assistant for his work on developing a flu vaccine. Salk left the University in 1947 for the University of Pittsburgh, where he later developed his polio vaccine.

Although the University did not play a major role in the development of the vaccine, Salk called on Francis and a team of School of Public Health researchers to tabulate the study’s results.

Francis’s team worked from the Poliomyelitis Evaluation Center, specially created for evaluating the polio field study, in the Special Projects Research Building at the University.

Francis’s work was funded by nearly $750,000 in dimes collected by the University and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes, according to a press release issued the morning of the announcement.

The final report was 113 pages long.

The March of Dimes and the University jointly sponsored the press conference. The date marked the 10th anniversary of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, a polio survivor who founded the March of Dimes.

Francis served as chair of the department of epidemiology from 1941 to 1969.


-Information for this article was gathered from the Bentley Historical Library’s online exhibit of the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine.

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