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The Virus and Vaccine, Medical Philanthropy

Three private organizations figured prominently in the history of poliomyelitis in the United States and worldwide: the Rockefeller Institute, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), and Rotary International.

Three buildings with a garden in the foreground and the Queensboro bridge in the background
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in the 1930s, with view of the Queensboro Bridge Courtesy of Rockefeller Institute Archives

Rockefeller University
Industrialist John D. Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York in 1901. Karl Landsteiner, who identified polio as a virus in 1908, joined the institute’s faculty in 1922, and studied human blood groups (for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1930).

Much of modern virology derives from the work of Rockefeller Institute investigators, including Simon Flexner, Thomas Rivers, and Peter Olitsky. Albert Sabin, arrived in 1935 and joined them in poliomyelitis research. The institute became “Rockefeller University” in 1965 and continues to be a leading research center for the molecular biology of human diseases.

FDR sitting at a desk with Basil O'Connor seated next to him with a pile of dimes on a desk
FDR and foundation director Basil OíConnor counting dimes, around 1938 Courtesy of March of Dimes

The March of Dimes
President Franklin Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. Its hugely successful fund-raising campaigns collected enough money to fund John Enders’s laboratory, where poliovirus was first grown in nonneural tissue; both Jonas Salk’s and Albert Sabin’s vaccine development; the 1954–55 field trial of Salk vaccine; and the supply of free vaccine to thousands of children afterward.

In 1958, the foundation changed its focus to premature birth and the prevention of birth defects. In 1979, the organization officially changed its name to the March of Dimes. Its work continues today, under the slogan “Saving babies, together.”

Left photo. Volunteers sitting at a table talking
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Right photo. Nurse standing next to a iron lung truck
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Left: Rotary International members in Kano, Nigeria Courtesy of Jean-Marc Giboux, photographer
Right: Rotary “iron lung” truck, 1944 Courtesy of Marc Shell

Rotary International
Chicago lawyer Paul Harris called together a group of civic-minded professionals in February 1905 to found the first “Rotary” Club—taking its name from rotating meetings in members’ homes and offices. By 1922, Rotary Clubs existed around the world, prompting the name change to Rotary International.

Rotarians were well-represented at the United Nations Charter Conference and have maintained their UN ties ever since. In 1985, Rotary International committed itself to immunizing all children against poliomyelitis. This organization, with 1.2 million members in 166 countries, has been the largest private-sector contributor to the polio eradication campaign worldwide.

Can with text reading, prevent birth defects, give to the March of Dimes

March of Dimes Bank, with “Prevent Birth Defect” slogan

Smithsonian National Museum of American History main site