Before AIDS, one of the most terrifying diseases people lived in fear of was polio. It was the cruelest of diseases. Overwhelmingly targeting children, it would break out primarily in the warm, golden summer months, killing or permanently crippling its victims within days, or even hours. When, at last, Dr. Jonas Salk announced the possibility that a vaccine had been developed, the hoped-for cure went from experimental laboratory to the doctor's office in record time.
Today, due to cautious testing, group analyses, possible side-effects research and insurance ramifications, it would take years to approve and finally circulate such a dramatic vaccine. But in 1953, panic over the approach of yet another hot, polio-ridden summer spurred public opinion ahead of scientific caution. Thousands of school-age children around the country were immediately lined up to participate in test runs of the vaccine.
The impatience of the public had reached what scientists call "a critical mass." The...
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