Dr. Albert Sabin: A Closer Look

By Laura McNulty and Ginny A. Roth

Photograph of Dr. Albert Sabin

Portrait of Dr. Albert Sabin, 1953
National Library of Medicine #B022500

Dr. Albert Sabin was born today, August 26 in 1906 in Poland and is best known for developing the oral polio vaccine. This black and white portrait of Sabin, taken in 1953, was donated to the National Library of Medicine by the College of Medicine at the University of Cincinnati in 1955, where Sabin was head of Pediatric Research.

In the 1930s, the outbreak of polio, which led to paralysis or death, had reached epidemic proportions both in the United States and around the globe.  The first inactive polio vaccine (IPV), which required an injection administered by a doctor, was created in 1954 by Dr. Jonas Salk.  During the same time period, Sabin discovered that the polio virus attacked and multiplied in the intestines, as opposed to the respiratory tract as was previously believed.  He began testing a new polio vaccine on humans, starting with his own family.  In 1956, Sabin reported that he had developed an oral polio vaccination (OPV), taken either as a syrup or a pill, that worked in the intestines to block the virus from entering the bloodstream.  Many believed that Salk’s vaccine had eradicated polio, so health officials in the United States were hesitant to support Sabin’s new vaccine. However, whereas Salk’s vaccine was effective in preventing most of the complications of polio, it did not prevent the initial intestinal infection. Even with Salk’s vaccine, people could carry the virus and spread it without showing any signs of the disease. In response to the lack of support for his vaccine in the United States, Sabin took it to the USSR in 1959 where it was administered to more than 100 million people with excellent results.

Following Sabin’s success in the USSR, American health officials were prompted to begin testing his oral vaccine. Sabin’s vaccination had many benefits; it could be administered by volunteers instead of doctors, usually one dose of Sabin’s vaccine provided life-long immunity from the polio virus (furthermore, since it was a live-virus vaccine, immunity could be spread from person to person), it was less expensive, and provided better control over epidemic outbreaks of polio. In 1961, Sabin’s oral vaccine was approved by the U.S. Public Health Service and replaced Salk’s vaccine as the preferred inoculation in the United States. The last known case of polio in the United States was reported in 1979. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OPV is no longer used in the United States, but is used in vaccination programs of some countries around the world. Since 2000, the only polio vaccine recommended and used in the United States is IPV because it is an inactivated or killed vaccine and cannot cause polio.

Later in his career, Sabin became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and became a Distinguished Research Professor of Biomedicine at the Medical University of South Carolina where his research focused on the link between virology and cancer, as well as the aerosol delivery of measles vaccination.  He served as a full-time consultant to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Sabin also held positions at various institutions including Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the Fogarty Institute at the National Institutes of Health where he continued part-time until his health forced his full retirement in 1988. Dr. Albert Sabin passed away on March 3, 1993 of heart failure.

Sabin received the National Medal of Science in 1970 for his work up to and including the development of the oral polio vaccine.  He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1986, which is highest award that a United States civilian can receive.

laura on the beach with her dogLaura McNulty is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently working at the National Library of Medicine as a Pathways Student. Beginning September 2013, she will be working as a conservation intern at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA.

portrait of Ginny Roth outsideGinny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.