A complex virus that spreads rapidly person to person. Some experience mild symptoms and may not even know they’re infected, while others experience catastrophic complications and even death. Sound familiar? I’m talking Polio, people. Which at its peak in the 1950s, would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide.

Did you know Cincinnati was at the epicenter of eradication of Polio in the United States?  Albert Sabin invented the polio vaccine right here in our fair city. Thanks to his discovery and pioneering immunization program, and courage of our citizens – Cincinnati was the first American city to participate in his Polio vaccine program.

Sabin was born Abram Saperstein on August 26, 1906 in Bialystock, Poland. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1921 and would later change his name to Albert Bruce Sabin after becoming a naturalized citizen. After graduation from NYU in 1931 he relocated to Cincinnati and began refining his research at Children’s Hospital. By 1946 he was the head of pediatric research at the University of Cincinnati.

While Jonas Salk developed a killed-virus polio vaccine in 1954, it is Sabin’s “live” polio vaccine that became the preeminent choice for mass immunization programs worldwide. As you can imagine there was some friendly rivalry and competition between Salk and Sabin as both of their vaccines were being refined for use at the same time. The Salk vaccine was injected while The Sabin dose was given orally and was sweet to the taste. As you can deduce, the latter being a very attractive means of delivery, especially for children.

Sabin first administered tests of his live attenuated oral Polio vaccine at the Chillicothe Ohio Reformatory. The vaccines were given to federal reformatory inmates on a voluntary basis. Prior to those tests on the prisoners the only other tests were on himself, his associates and Sabin’s own family. You can see he stood behind his invention.

By early 1960, Sabin had dramatically increased his testing of the vaccine from an international standpoint. 50 million doses were administered to people in what was then the USSR (now Russia), parts of Eastern Europe, Mexico, the Netherlands and Singapore. With this huge amount of research under his belt, the vaccine was given the green light and moved into mass industrial production and immunization began right here Cincinnati.

In just one month in April, 1960 around 180,000 Cincinnati school children would be among the first Americans to receive the new polio vaccine. The vaccine promotion, referred to as “Sabin Sundays” originated right here in southwest Ohio. Cincinnati was the first city in the nation to administer the vaccine following FDA approval and on that first “Sabin Sunday” some 20,000 local children were immunized. By the time the program neared it’s end in our city, nearly 200,000 Cincinatians had received their sugar cube.

By 1962 Sabin Sunday’s were commonplace around the country and Cincinnati children had led the way for vaccine acceptance. Families across the United States lined up at churches and schools, over three consecutive Sundays, to swallow a spoonful of pink syrup or a sugar cube treated with a life-saving polio vaccine. The treatment was so commonplace it even inspired the ubiquitous 1962 song “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” from Mary Poppins.

Polio was declared eradicated in the United States in 1979. Albert Sabin passed away on March 3, 1993 of heart failure. He was 86 years old. To thank Sabin for his contributions to the health of Cincinnati, Elland Street which ran between the UC College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was renamed Albert Sabin Way in his honor. A small token of appreciation for the man who helped the medicine go down, the medicine go down.


Cincinnati, Leningrad Something in Common. May 3, 1960.The Akron Beacon Journal. Akron, Ohio

Cincinnati Prepares to mark anniversary of Sabin Sunday. April 22, 2000. Arizona Republic. Phoenix, Arizona

New Polio Tests Set at Reformatory Here. October 8, 1956. Chillicothe Gazette. Chillicothe, Ohio

Polio Scientist who pioneered here set for Cancer Research. Chillicothe Gazette. Feb 1, 1960. Chillicothe, Ohio.

What is Polio (PDF). Canadian International Immunization Initiative. p. 3.

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