Dr. Sabin, one of the great virologists, helped to end the worldwide polio epidemic of the 20th century. Sabin (1906-1993) was born in a part of Russia that later became Poland and immigrated to the United States in 1921 as a young teen-ager. After graduating from high school in New Jersey, Sabin entered a dental program before deciding he’d rather try medicine. He describes himself as a “very bad” student at New York University medical school and says he flunked several classes.
Training at Bellevue Hospital, he published a paper on pneumonia while a first-year medical student. A turning point in his life was the polio epidemic in New York City in 1931. He went on to England for a fellowship and studied immunity. After returning to New York, he joined the Rockefeller Institute, and became interested in the entry portal for the polio virus in humans.
In 1939, he accepted an offer to come to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Foundation because the hospital offered him something he wanted – access to patients. “My job was to study infectious disease,” he said, but he kept his focus on polio as well.
Sabin became an expert on toxoplasmosis, encephalitis, dengue fever and sand-fly fever. During World War II, he joined the U.S. Army and developed vaccines that were used around the world.
After the war, using a live polio virus, his study subjects included prisoners in Chillicothe, OH, and his own children. In 1960, he carried out one of the nation’s largest studies when tens of thousands of school children in Cincinnati were vaccinated. Sabin said that no individuals should have to pay to receive his polio vaccine, and no one did.
Interviewed by Drs. Benjamin Felson and Saul Benison and recorded in 1979.
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This interview was produced and kindly made available by the Henry R. Winkler Center for the History of the Health Professions as part of its Oral History Series.