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Whatever Happened to Polio? Exhibition

This Web site, Whatever Happened to Polio? has been created in conjunction with a temporary gallery exhibition, installed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibition opened on April 12, 2005, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the announcement that Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was safe and effective. The exhibition is scheduled to close on April 12, 2006.

Whatever Happened to Polio? highlights the polio vaccine clinical trials; the history of the American polio epidemics that began in 1894 and peaked in 1952; the medical, orthotic, and assistive technology used by medical practitioners and people who had polio, including a pair of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leg braces; FDR’s role in founding the March of Dimes and establishing Warm Springs as a polio rehabilitation center; and stories of how the people who had polio went on to influence American life and culture, in ways as disparate as the disability rights movement and the creation of Mars candy bars (Frank Mars learned candy making while home-schooled by his mother). The impact of polio on medical practice and public health policy is also explored.

The science of polio is explained with two bronze, scientifically accurate, touchable sculptures of the poliovirus in action. The virus models, especially commissioned for the exhibition, were designed by a biochemist and cast at an art foundry in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The exhibition also includes an iron lung and a working rocking bed. The technology of the iron lung is further explored through a miniature working version of the tank respirator—visitors can place an arm inside, feel the pressure change, and hear the sound of the vacuum pump.

The global collaboration of Rotary International, UNICEF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and national governments is the latest chapter in the history of polio. International efforts started in the 1980s to stop the transmission of poliovirus have drastically reduced the number of countries in which poliovirus is circulating, and the goal of ending forever the threat of poliovirus is nearly achieved. The dramatic story of National Immunization Days is recounted through vaccine coolers and other tools of the field vaccinator of today.

The Museum’s Hands On Science Center has an activity especially created to complement the exhibition, based on the science behind antibody assay.

In the Gallery
The exhibition was located in a second floor west gallery, next to the Star-Spangled Banner.

The gallery featured an educator who directed activities for visitors of all ages, about such things as the surprising connection of polio to the game of Candy Land, the history of immunization, and how National Immunization Days are organized. Children had their pinky fingers marked after completing an activity, the way field vaccinators in India and Africa mark the fingers of children after vaccination.

There were regularly scheduled gallery talks by pediatricians, people who had participated in National Immunization Days, people who have had polio, scientists working on viruses and in molecular medicine, and nurses who worked in polio wards.

The exhibit design incorporated the principles of Universal Design. It included tactile-audio maps of the gallery space, spotlight sound with audio description, and other design details for independence and usability.

National Museum of American History, Behring Center

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Learn more about the Museum by signing up for our monthly newsletter or reading our blog.

Photo of kids standing in a line showing their arms where they were vaccinated

Some Polio Pioneers who tested the Salk vaccine Courtesy of March of Dimes

Photo of the National Museum of American History
Smithsonian National Museum of American History main site