During the early 20th century, the incidence of polio skyrocketed in the United States. In the 1920s, public health officials reported about four cases per 100,000. By the early 1950s, the rate soared to 25 per 100,000, and peaked during the “Plague Season” of 1952, at 37 per 100,000. American parents lived in fear of a disease that crippled their children and filled hospital wards with the eerie sounds of iron lung machines.

The popular wisdom in greater Cincinnati is that for a 21-year period from 1939 when Dr. Albert Sabin established his virology laboratory at Children’s Hospital, until April 24, 1960, when local families lined up for the first Sabin Sunday, Cincinnati was the leader in the effort to eradicate polio. In reality, the story, and the role of Dr. Sabin as a leader, is much more complex and more interesting.

America’s leading scientists, like John Paul and John Enders working in the most prestigious medical centers in the county, and Sabin in Cincinnati, searched for ways to reverse the growing polio epidemic for decades. In 1947, Sabin published an essay that that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Oshinsky describes in Polio: An American Story as “remarkably prescient.” Sabin hypothesized that a natural way that children acquired immunity had somehow been interrupted in 20th century America. He suggested that the development of new cleaning products and America’s growing fetish for cleanliness prevented small children from being exposed to fecal matter where they picked up trace amounts of the virus, stimulating the natural development of antibodies. The implications of this insight were not fully understood, or even accepted, for years.

Brilliant, but uncompromising, Sabin insisted on the methodical approach of the scientific process. When Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952, Sabin was furious. He considered Salk nothing more than a “bench scientist” and his approach an ill-conceived shortcut. Salk’s vaccine utilized a killed virus compound. It only protected a single person if they had an initial shot, two follow-ups and annual boosters.

Unlike Sabin, the country considered Salk a national hero. In March 1954, Time Magazine featured “Researcher Salk” on its cover and a month later he appeared on a national CBS radio program called “The Scientist Speaks for Himself.”

Even as the Salk vaccine reached mass distribution in 1955, Sabin methodically continued his work, favoring a live, but attenuated (weakened) oral vaccine that mimicked the natural path of infection. As a live vaccine, Sabin believed his approach promoted “herd immunity” spreading protection even to those who had not been vaccinated.

The success of the Salk vaccine (only 1,000 polio cases in the U.S. by 1959) meant that by the time Sabin was ready for field test of his vaccine, Americans were no longer interested. Blocked in the U.S., Sabin turned to the Soviet Union, vaccinating over 10 million Soviet children in 1959. The medical results were impressive, but the Sabin vaccine became part of the Cold War competition as a “Communist vaccine.”

Though the Sabin vaccine may be superior, Salk’s vaccine was so successful that it took a massive campaign in the local newspapers to convince parents who had already vaccinated their children to line them up to “sip the Sabin syrup.” The day before the first Sabin Sunday and the launch of a “Children’s Crusade,” the front page headline in the Cincinnati Post declared the “Drive to Completely Eliminate Polio Here Begins Tomorrow.”

The newspaper explanation didn’t convince my father. As a result, when I interviewed Dr. Sabin at his Washington, D.C. apartment in 1991, I decided that it wasn’t prudent to reveal my parents’ decision, suspecting that if he found out, he would whip out a dose of his vaccine from the refrigerator and vaccinate me on the spot. Albert Sabin had a tenacious personality and even after 40 years, I found he had not tired of delineating the differences between the two vaccines, downplaying Salk’s contribution.

The fight to completely eradicate polio became Dr. Sabin’s lifelong quest, and through an alliance with the World Health Organization and Rotary International, that goal was in sight when Dr. Sabin died in 1993 (though pockets still exist).

A clear vision, a commitment to methodical experimentation and the willingness to allow empirical evidence to repeatedly reframe the underlying and operational hypotheses made Dr. Albert Sabin an excellent researcher who became a leader in the scientific realm. On the other hand, his single mindedness, brittle personality and lack of understanding of the pressures exerted by public opinion on funders, the medical community and politicians often made him a difficult colleague and a person not ideally equipped to step into a public role.

For access to wide array of Dr. Sabin’s materials, check out the special online collection hosted by the Winkler Center at the University of Cincinnati, “Albert Sabin: An Incredible Cincinnatian”: https://libapps.libraries.uc.edu/liblog/2014/10/albert-sabin-an-incredible-cincinnatian/

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.