The English physician Michael Underwood provided the first clinical description of the disease in 1789, when he referred to polio as “a debility of the lower extremities.” The work of physicians Jakob Heine in 1840 and Karl Oskar in 1890 led to it being known as Heine-Medin disease. The disease was later called infantile paralysis, based on its propensity to affect children.
Small localized paralytic polio epidemics began to appear in Europe and the United States around 1900. Outbreaks reached pandemic proportions in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand during the first half of the 20th century.
In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic became the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis.
Three years later, Dr. Jonas Salk became a national hero when he developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine in 1955 with the support of the March of Dimes. In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910.
The polio epidemics changed not only the lives of those who survived them, but also affected profound cultural changes; spurring grassroots fund-raising campaigns that would revolutionize medical philanthropy, and giving rise to the modern field of rehabilitation therapy.
As one of the largest disabled groups in the world, polio survivors also helped to advance the modern disability rights movement through campaigns for the social and civil rights of the disabled. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 10 to 20 million polio survivors worldwide.
For more on the history of polio, visit Wikipedia.