For generations, deadly epidemics were a regular occurrence in America. The disease feared perhaps more than any other was yellow fever.
By Karl Zinsmeister
Every few years, outbreaks would explode across seaboard regions, killing thousands at random, with terrifying symptoms that left victims crying out in horrible pangs.
People were so frightened that a third or more of the residents of major cities like Philadelphia would flee to the countryside at the first hint of infection – compounding the harm to health with egregious economic damage.
No one had any accurate idea what caused the fever. Not until 1900 did researchers understand that it was caused by a virus (the first human virus ever discovered) and transmitted from person to person by mosquito bites. Even after that discovery, efforts to quench yellow fever floundered. Then in 1915 the Rockefeller Foundation declared war on the illness. A special research station was set up in Nigeria where rhesus monkeys were used to test infection and immunity – dangerous work that killed three of the foundation’s lead researchers. Rockefeller continued its heroic battle in high-security labs in New York City and elsewhere. Despite tight precautions, more researchers died.
In 1931, Rockefeller Institute scientist Bruce Wilson volunteered to be injected with an experimental vaccine. He developed immunity to the illness. It took until 1937 to make the vaccine mass-producible, but in the first seven years it was manufactured the Rockefeller Foundation gave out 28 million doses. One of the world’s most frightening scourges was finally brought under control, and lead Rockefeller researcher Max Theiler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The polio precedent
A second virus that terrorized Americans, even beyond the middle of the twentieth century, was polio. Every summer there would be alarms in various parts of the U.S. – complete with social distancing, quarantines, and whole families sequestering inside their homes or temporarily moving to rural areas as epidemics tore through communities. Living Americans can still remember the 1952 polio outbreak that killed 3,145 U.S residents and permanently crippled many more. Every single year, the illness ended lives without warning, and left hundreds of thousands of children and adults clamped into Iron Lung machines, wheelchairs, and permanent leg braces and crutches.
It was swarms of small voluntary donations that finally disabled the polio virus. Millions of families all over the U.S. began making donations to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (known as the March of Dimes because of its reliance on small gifts). At the time of the 1952 pandemic, the charity’s annual budget was almost $500 million in today’s dollars. It provided 25 times more funding for polio research that year than the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The foundation’s money went to fellowships in virology, lab studies, support for stricken families, and public-information efforts. Among many other accomplishments, it funded the lab where the polio virus was first grown in non-neural tissue.
Institutional donors also did their part. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, for instance, funded studies of infantile paralysis. It hosted the vaccine experiments of Albert Sabin.
This combination of mass giving and foundation support eventually put a dagger into polio. Dr. Jonas Salk won a $35,000 grant from the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 1948 that allowed him to equip a modern virus laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Scaife subsequently offered follow-up grants. Salk also received support from small donors through the March of Dimes (as did Dr. Sabin).
The philanthropic backing for Salk yielded a medical breakthrough right amidst the 1952 polio terror. The doctor created an experimental polio vaccine made out of killed virus cells, then bravely immunized himself and his family with it. Thanks to rapid field trials paid for by the March of Dimes, the Salk vaccine was soon deemed safe. It went into production in 1955 and was widely administered around the world as the world’s first polio blocker.