Health and Living Podcasts

Two Stories of Historic Vaccines: The End of Polio and Smallpox

We released the following show on the history of vaccines back in early April 2020 when the idea of a COVID 19 vaccine seemed little more than distant fantasy. 

Just this past Monday, on December 14, Sandra Lindsay, the director of critical care at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens became the first American to receive the Pfizer COVID 19 vaccine in a non-trial setting.

And so this week we’re re-releasing this show — in a much more hopeful context this time around.

This is the story of the polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin — and then a look at the origin of the vaccine itself, first developed to combat smallpox almost 225 years ago, thanks to Edward Jenner and a cow named Blossom.

Jenner, Stephen; ‘Blossom’, the Cow; Edward Jenner Museum;

In 1916 New York City became the epicenter of one of America’s very first polio epidemics.

The scourge of infantile paralysis infected thousands of Americans that year, most under the age of five. But in New York City it was especially bad. The Department of Health took drastic measures, barring children from going out in public and even labeling home with polio sufferers, urging others to stay away.

That same year, up in the Bronx, a young couple named Daniel and Dora Salk — the children of Eastern European immigrants — were themselves raising their young son named Jonas. As an adult, Jonas Salk would spend his life combating the poliovirus in the laboratory, creating a vaccine that would change the world.

In 1921 a young lawyer and politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt would contract what was believed at the time to be polio. He would use his connections and power — first as governor of New York, then as president of the United States — to guide the nation’s response to the virus.

AND THEN: The second half of the show is devoted to the question — who came up the first vaccine anyway? 

Once upon a time there was a country doctor with a love of birds, a milkmaid with translucent skin, an eight-year-old boy with no idea what he’s in for and a wonderful cow that holds the secret to human immunity.

This is the story of the first vaccine, perhaps one of the greatest inventions in modern human history. Come listen to this remarkable story of risk and bravery which led to the eradication of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

And hear the words of Dr. Edward Jenner himself, written in the first weeks of his experiments!


Bellevue Hospital 1916, a bus with children and polio patients — Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.
A map marking the places most severely hit by the polio epidemic in 1916. The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Poliomyelitis (Infantile Paralysis). Prevalence and Geographic Distribution During 1916. Reprint no. 403. Public Health Reports. June 29, 1917.
The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The Epidemic of Poliomyelitis (Infantile Paralysis) in New York City in 1916. Department of Health of New York City, 1916.
Young Jonas Salk (at far left) with his family. Picture courtesy San Diego Union Tribute
Salk stands in his University of Pittsburgh laboratory, 1956. Bettmann/Corbis
Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.
Young Albert Sabin, courtesy University of Cincinnati
Albert Sabin, administering his oral polio vaccine. Courtesy of the Henry R. Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions, University of Cincinnati
A rare picture of FDR in his wheelchair, on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park. FDR Presidential Library & Museum photograph by Margaret Suckley
Roosevelt with Basil O’Connor (and a whole lot of dimes), 1944
Museum of the City of New York
Gypsy Rose Lee at a March of Dimes benefit lunch in New York, 1945. Courtesy Bettmann/Corbis

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