Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

“A calculated risk”: the Salk polio vaccine field trials of 1954

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 31 October 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1233
  1. Marcia Meldrum, DeWitt Stetten memorial fellow in the history of the biomedical sciences
  1. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892
  • Accepted 6 October 1998

The polio vaccine field trials of 1954, sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), are among the largest and most publicised clinical trials ever undertaken. Across the United States, 623 972 schoolchildren were injected with vaccine or placebo, and more than a million others participated as “observed” controls. The results, announced in 1955, showed good statistical evidence that Jonas Salk's killed virus preparation was 80-90% effective in preventing paralytic poliomyelitis.1

The statistical design used in this great experiment was singular, prompting criticism at the time and since. Eighty four test areas in 11 states used the textbook model: in a randomised, blinded design all participating children in the first three grades of school (ages 6-9) received injections of either vaccine or placebo and were observed for evidence of the disease. But 127 test areas in 33 states used an “observed control” design: participating children in the second grade (ages 7-8) received injections of vaccine; no placebo was given, and children in all three grades were then observed for the duration of the polio “season.”1

The use of the dual protocol illustrates both the power and the limitations of the randomised clinical trial to legitimate therapeutic claims. The placebo controlled trials were necessary to define the Salk vaccine—introduced by a lay organisation that has taken an activist position against the counsel of its virological advisers—as the product of scientific medicine. The observed control trials were essential to maintaining public support for the vaccine as the product of lay faith and investment in science. Here I examine the process by which the trial design was negotiated and the roles of the several actors.

Summary points

The 1954 polio vaccine field trials used a singular statistical design

Over 600 000 schoolchildren were injected with vaccine or placebo and over …

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