This Day in Jewish History / The Man Who Gave Us a Painless Polio Vaccine Is Born

Albert Sabin wasn't the first to find a way to thwart the virus. The Russian-born genius just found a way to make it not hurt.

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August 26, 1906, is the birthdate of Albert Sabin, the medical researcher whose many discoveries included identifying how the polio virus spreads, which led to his development of a safe and reliable oral vaccine for prevention of the disease.

Although Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved and in use earlier than Sabin’s, it was the latter’s that quickly became the standard internationally after its introduction in the United States in 1960.

Albert Bruce Sabin was born in Bialystok, then part of the Russian Empire, today in Poland, to Jacob Saperstein and the former Tillie Krugman. His initial education was in Hebrew and Yiddish, to which he soon added Russian, studied with a private tutor.

After the Bialystok pogrom of June 1906, much of the extended family began emigrating from Russia, although in the case of Albert’s family, they did not leave until after World War I, and did not arrive at Ellis Island, in New York, until early 1921, after an 18-month journey.

Relatives who had preceded the family helped them settle in Paterson, New Jersey. There Albert, after six weeks of an English-language cram course, enrolled in high school. In 1923, he began pre-dental studies at New York University, after an uncle offered to finance his education and house him, on the understanding that Albert, at the end of his training, would join the uncle’s dental practice.

Didn’t want to be a dentist

After three years, however, Sabin “couldn’t stand it any longer,” and, acknowledging that what he really wanted to do was medical research, quit dental school. Although he now lacked a financial backer, he was fortunate enough to have a bacteriology professor who not only gave him a lab job, but also helped arrange scholarships and even housing for Sabin.

Albert became an American citizen, and changed his name to “Sabin,” in 1930, and finished medical school the following year. Because his internship was to start only the following winter, he did research that summer in the lab of that same mentor, Dr. William H. Park, on poliomyelitis, then the cause of an epidemic.

Very quickly, Sabin proved himself to be brilliant, methodical and single-minded, and was in demand as a researcher. A year at the Lister Institute in London was followed by a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute, back in New York, until in 1939, at age 33, he was offered the opportunity to run his own program in viral research at the University of Cincinnati.

Weizmann presidency

During World War II, as an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, Sabin isolated the virus that caused sandfly fever, which affected troops in Africa. While in northern Africa, he had his first visit to Palestine. Later he would become a regular visitor to Israel, until, in 1970, he accepted an offer to become the fourth president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot.

During his medical career, Sabin developed vaccines against dengue fever and encephalitis, but his greatest claim to fame was the live-virus vaccine against the crippling polio, which was first tested on schoolchildren in the U.S. in 1960, after some years of trials in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. It quickly replaced the Salk injected vaccine as inoculation of choice (the two doctors had a long-running, well-publicized rivalry), although the disease has yet to be eradicated globally.

Sabin, who was married three times and had two daughters, held a variety of elder-statesman positions in his final decades, including the Weizmann presidency, which he resigned in 1972, after open-heart surgery. Despite much ill health, he continued to remain outspoken on key public-health issues.

He died in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1993, of congestive heart failure. He left the bulk of his estate to the Weizmann Institute, having already given $620,000 during his lifetime to fund solar energy research there.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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