Mention the polio vaccine and most people think of Jonas Salk. The fact is, however, that the polio vaccine used today is actually based on the work of another Jewish physician, Albert Bruce Sabin. 

Sabin, who was born Albert Saperstein on August 26, 1906, in Bialystok, Russia (today Poland), emigrated to America with his family when he was 16 and graduated from New York University medical school in 1931. During World War II, as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he developed vaccines for Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever.

Reports of cases of the polio disease have been recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphs (images of children with withered limbs), but the outbreaks of the early twentieth century reached epidemic proportions. Thousands of children died, and thousands more were left permanently disabled. (It wasn’t just children: Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted the disease when he was 39.)

Working at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital before and after the war, Sabin made a critical discovery that the polio vaccine thrived in the small intestines (as well as on nerve tissue). Sabin wanted to introduce live avirulent (non-harmful) viruses into the intestines to fight the full virus where it was most potent. In 1955, he and his research associates tested the vaccine on themselves before it was tested on hundreds of prison inmates (a common practice of the time). There were no adverse effects. 

However, just before Sabin was ready for wide-scale testing, Jonas Salk began testing his vaccine that was created through dead viruses. Salk’s vaccine worked, but only for a limited time and prevented the complications rather than the illness. Foreign colleagues believed more in Sabin’s vaccine, arranging for the vaccine to be tested and used in the Soviet Union, Mexico and several other countries.  In 1960, Sabin was finally permitted to run a trial in Cincinnati. It proved effective, and Sabin’s live vaccine became the primary polio vaccine.

Sabin continued to work on fighting numerous other infectious diseases. From 1969-1972, he was president of the Weitzman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. After retiring to the States, he held several high-level research positions and was particularly interested in finding a link between viruses and cancer.

Albert Sabin died of heart failure in March 1993, at age 86.

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