Church bells pealed. Car horns blared. The enemy that had laid waste to thousands was on the run, and on that morning 50 years ago, Americans rejoiced.
In a single, electrifying moment, they had learned that Jonas Salk and a team of researchers had developed a vaccine that could conquer poliomyelitis, one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century.
"The vaccine works," the announcement declared. "It is safe, effective and potent."
The news, a watershed in medicine, made Salk a national hero. And it changed life forever in cities large and small. It brought an end to summers of shuttered movie theaters, padlocked swimming pools and abandoned beaches, an end to the relentless onslaught of headlines reporting the latest polio epidemic. No longer would families be haunted by the specter of paralysis -- or death.
"The hope that it offered was tremendous," said John Sever, a pediatrician specializing in infectious disease at Children's National Medical Center here who was then a Chicago medical student caring for young victims of the virus. He still can hear the sound of their iron lungs, the massive mechanical tubes that kept the most critically ill alive by forcing air in and out of their bodies.
"A terrible grinding, clinking noise," he recalled, softened only by the faint sibilance of leaking oxygen.
Fifty years later, the achievement of April 12, 1955, is being celebrated: at the University of Pittsburgh, where Salk and colleagues labored feverishly for nearly a decade; at the University of Michigan, where their success was announced before an overflow crowd; in Boston, where others had done the groundbreaking research into how the virus could be grown in quantity; in La Jolla, Calif., home to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Washington plans to mark the anniversary at the Smithsonian Institution. A gathering today with Salk's youngest son and the granddaughter of the disease's most famous casualty, Franklin D. Roosevelt, will herald the opening of "Whatever Happened to Polio?" at the National Museum of American History. Like the other events, the exhibit will look backward and forward in exploring the advances the campaign brought about and the ethical issues it raised.
Though the disease and its menace have faded from this country's consciousness, the impact of how both were overcome continues to be felt. Salk's work was financed largely by individual Americans' response to the door-to-door fund raising of mothers and to the appeal of the winsome, scrubbed-fresh faces of polio's poster children. Its aftermath, however, ushered in a new era of government funding and surveillance of medical research. (The wholesale testing on hundreds of thousands of monkeys, on prisoners and on institutionalized children never would be permitted today.)
A host of other childhood vaccines soon followed, accompanied by shifting public expectations that immunizations should be made available to all regardless of income or race.
"Polio put all that in motion," Smithsonian curator Katherine Ott said.
"No disease drew as much attention or struck with the same terror as polio," University of Texas historian David M. Oshinsky writes in a new account, "Polio: An American Story." "And for good reason. Polio hit without warning. There was no way of telling who would get it and who would be spared. It killed some of its victims and marked others for life, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, breathing devices, deformed limbs."