Halting Epidemics

The iron lung, a device that saved thousands afflicted with polio until a vaccine was found, was invented at HSPH.

Through all of history, outbreaks of infectious disease have ravaged human societies, spreading chaos and fear. Building on the 19th-century germ theory of disease, the School in its formative years made key discoveries about yellow fever, river blindness, diphtheria, measles, sleeping sickness, and other infections.

But it was polio that was the single most emotional topic in biomedical research. In 1934, School faculty invented the Drinker respirator—later dubbed the “iron lung”—which enabled polio victims, afflicted by respiratory paralysis, to breathe. Until the 1940s, research on a polio vaccine had stalled because scientists could not grow the virus in a form that would permit mass production of a vaccine. In 1947, researchers at the School succeeded for the first time in growing the virus in non-nervous-system tissue, ­ a monumental breakthrough that led to the development of a protective vaccine and a Nobel Prize for faculty member Thomas Weller.

Scientists at the School have also deciphered the secrets of other infectious diseases. In the late 1970s, they identified a recently discovered tick species as the vector of Lyme disease, then a newly emerging infection. In the early 1990s, with a new wave of globally emerging infections on the rise, the School’s Working Group on New and Resurgent Diseases showed that the alarming new infections had sprung from changes in the environment, either natural or caused by humans.

In 2006, Richard Cash received the Prince Mahidol Award for “exemplary contributions in the field of public health.” Cash was credited with saving millions of lives worldwide by promoting the use of oral rehydration therapy to treat cholera and other diarrheal diseases.

Next: Confronting AIDS