The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> History of Medicine
Albert Sabin

developer of the "live-virus" polio vaccine

Albert Bruce Sabin

Albert Bruce Sabin was born in Bialystok, Poland, on August 26, 1906. He, his parents, and his three siblings emigrated to the United States in 1921 and settled in Paterson, New Jersey. Despite speaking no English upon his arrival, Sabin managed to learn enough to graduate from high school in 1923. He subsequently entered New York University, from which he received his Bachelor's in 1928. After earning his Medical Degree in 1931, he trained in pathology, surgery and internal medicine at Bellevue Hospital until 1933, after which he spent a year doing research at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London, England.

Sabin was influenced to study the poliomyelitis virus after a polio epidemic struck New York the year he received his medical degree. He began his research at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in 1935, and then moved to the University of Cincinnati and its Children's Hospital Research Foundation in 1939.

When the United States entered World War II Sabin joined the U.S. Army as a consultant on viral diseases. From 1943 to 1946 he served with the Board of Investigation of Epidemic Diseases of the Office of the Surgeon General, with special missions in Middle East, Africa, Sicily, Okinawa, Philippines. During this period he isolated the viruses responsible for sand fly fever, found a vaccine for dengue fever, and developed a vaccine against Japanese encephalitis.

Returning to his polio research after the war, Sabin became convinced that the polio virus entered the human body via the stomach and intestines, not by way of the lungs as most of his contemporaries then believed. His intent was to make the human stomach a hostile environment for the polio virus. To do this he scoured the world in search of a mutant form of the polio virus that was incapable of producing the disease; he eventually found three. He then devised a method of introducing the mutant virus into the intestines, where it would multiply rapidly and displace the deadly virus, thus providing the patient with lifetime immunity against the disease. He began testing his live-virus vaccine on volunteers in 1954, but was prevented from carrying out large-scale tests in the United States because Jonas Salk had just developed a killed-virus vaccine that seemed at the time to be quite effective.

Sabin's live-virus vaccine would have remained in the laboratory had Salk's killed-virus vaccine succeeded in eradicating polio, but when a batch of Salk's vaccine was accidentally contaminated with live polio virus and managed to actually cause polio in huge numbers of recipients, the World Health Organization suddenly became willing to give Sabin's vaccine a chance. From 1958 to 1959 Sabin's vaccine was tested in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations, and was proven to be extremely effective. The first large-scale test in the United States came in 1960, when Sabin's oral polio vaccine was given to 180,000 Cincinnati schoolchildren. The Sabin vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1961. Within a few years Sabin's vaccine had all but replaced Salk's, and by the early 1970's the World Health Organization had proclaimed the near-eradication of polio from the world.

Following his success with the polio vaccine, Sabin began studying the role viruses play in cancer. By 1977, however, he had concluded that cancers were not caused by viruses and there was little more work he could do in the field. In 1970 he became president of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, but was forced to step down in 1972 due to health problems. In 1974 he became a full-time consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and from 1974 to 1982 served as distinguished research professor of biomedicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. From 1984 to 1986 he was a senior expert consultant at the Fogarty International Center for Advanced Studies in Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

Albert Bruce Sabin died in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1993. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Arlington National Cemetery

See Also

Jonas Salk

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> History of Medicine

This page was last updated on 08/26/2018.