Albert Sabin (1906-1993) was a brilliant virologist and prolific researcher (he published over 350 scientific articles) best known for developing the live, orally-administered vaccine that has almost completely eliminated polio throughout the world. A humanitarian in the truest sense of the word, he declined to patent his vaccine, which would have made him unimaginably wealthy, deciding instead to cut out commercial exploitation by pharmaceutical industries to ensure a low price that would enable broad public access to treatment.
Although best known for his polio vaccine, Sabin also developed other effective vaccines. While serving during World War II as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he studied sandfly fever, which was sickening American troops throughout North Africa, and he proved that the disease was being spread by mosquitoes and that incidents of the disease could be significantly reduced through the simple use of mosquito repellant. He also played a leading role in developing an effective vaccine against dengue fever, and his vaccine against Japanese encephalitis was administered to about 70,000 American troops who were preparing for a possible invasion of Japan. His work also included important research on pneumococcal infections, herpes, and toxoplasmosis.
Sabin had been working on a polio vaccine for 35 years and was nearing the final stages of his research when Jonas Salk announced his breakthrough; nonetheless, Sabin continued his work, certain that he could improve on Salk’s vaccine because significant problems remained with it. First, not everybody could take the vaccinations; second, while paralysis did not occur, many people developed a mild form of the illness; third, it was difficult to predict how long the vaccine would remain effective and boosters were required; and, fourth, Salk’s vaccine was only about 95 percent effective. Although Salk’s vaccine was the first to market, it is rarely used today, and it was Sabin’s inexpensive oral vaccine that is responsible for the nearly complete global eradication of polio.
In contrast with Salk’s vaccine, Sabin’s used a live, but somewhat weakened, virus and, as such, he had to solve the significant problems of the live virus becoming virulent, being spread to others, or attacking the person taking the vaccine. He produced a vaccine that could be taken orally, manufactured cheaply, and offered lifetime immunity to polio without the need for boosters. Perhaps most significantly, it could be stored indefinitely and was easier and more practical to use for mass inoculation campaigns.
Another advantage of the Salk vaccine was that it could be administered to children on sugar cubes instead of through the painful “shots” we all dreaded as children. In one delightful anecdote, the son of Jewish songwriter Roger M. Sherman advised him that he had received the vaccine at school and, when Sherman asked if it was painful, his son explained that it had been given to him on a lump of sugar. The result was that Sherman broke through his temporary writer’s block and wrote – wait for it – Just A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down) for Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).
Sabin’s first human test subjects for his live attenuated oral vaccine were himself, his family and his research associates, all of whom swallowed live avirulent viruses without harm. His first clinical trials were carried out on 30 volunteer prisoners at a federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, all of whom developed antibodies to the virus strains without becoming ill. He sought to conduct larger studies with greater statistical credibility in the United States, but the government refused to permit it because of the slight chance that the polio virus could mutate back into a dangerous virus, a risk the government initially deemed unacceptable.
Unable to conduct meaningful trials in America, and needing to test his vaccine on a much larger sample to prove the vaccine’s effectiveness, Sabin reached out to a most unlikely partner: the Soviet Union, then engaged in the Cold War against the United States. He tested his vaccine from 1956 to 1961 on at least 100 million people in the USSR and some smaller Soviet Bloc countries, and he became so beloved in Russia that the Soviet President of the Supreme Soviet awarded him the Order of the Friendship Among Peoples Medal in 1986, its highest civilian honor.
Almost every American inoculated against polio in the years 1963 to 1996 received a vaccine that was tested through Sabin’s Cold War diplomacy. The Soviet Union trials were a reflection of Sabin’s long-held belief in promoting international collaboration. Thus, for example, notwithstanding the fact that the United States lacked formal diplomatic ties with Cuba, he went there in 1967 to discuss the possibility of establishing a collaborative relationship between the two countries through their respective national academies of sciences.
After Sabin’s overseas trials proved beyond any scientific doubt the extraordinary effectiveness and safety of his vaccine and established that the government’s fears were entirely unwarranted, he received permission in 1957 to conduct tests in the United States. His first mass immunization effort was in 1960, when 180,000 schoolchildren in Cincinnati were immunized, resulting in the total eradication of polio in the city. Later that year, the oral vaccine was administered to over 418,000 people in Dade County, Florida, and, in the next 18 months, not a single case of polio was reported there.
Nonetheless, Sabin still had an uphill battle in gaining acceptance for his vaccine by virologists, particularly from the March of Dimes Foundation, which threw its considerable weight behind the Salk vaccine, but Sabin ultimately prevailed upon the Public Health Service to license his oral vaccine. It was formally licensed for production in the U.S. in August 1961; by 1963, it had become the standard vaccine domestically and around the world; and, by the late 1960s, it had become practically impossible to obtain the Salk vaccine in the U.S.
Sabin’s mass vaccination program came to be known as “Sabin on Sundays.” Exhibited here is a coupon book issued by several medical societies in Oregon as part of such a mass immunization program (1962), “SOS – Sabin Oral Saturdays Sundays.”
In 1994, the World Health Organization declared that naturally occurring poliovirus had been entirely eradicated from the Western Hemisphere due to repeated mass immunization campaigns with the Sabin vaccine in Central and South America and, since then, polio has been virtually eliminated across the world, except for a few outlier countries. In 2022, a Hasidic man in Rockland County developed paralytic polio, the first case in the United States in a decade, but it turns out that he had followed the advice of ignorant rabbis and had not been inoculated against the disease.
Born Abram Saperstejn to Yiddish-speaking Jewish parents near Bialystok, Poland (he changed his name when he became a naturalized American citizen in 1930), Sabin attended cheder in Bialystok, where he received instruction in Hebrew and Yiddish. His father attended synagogue on the High Holy Days, but he was not observant, and it was his maternal grandfather who took him to synagogue, joyfully told him Bible stories, and, as we shall see, played a central role in his grandson’s evolving Zionism.
Most of the Sabin extended family emigrated to America in the aftermath of the infamous Bialystok Pogrom of 1906 (the year he was born), but he and his immediate family remained behind to care for his ill maternal grandmother. He recalled generally the subsequent antisemitic persecutions – and, specifically, one occasion when he was attacked by a rock-throwing group of children leaving church on a Sunday that almost blinded him – that marked the years until his immediate family was finally able to leave after World War I in 1919. However, after a nightmarish 18-month sea voyage in steerage, the family arrived at Ellis Island in 1921 and joined their relatives in Patterson, New Jersey, where Sabin’s father was able to find work in the local textile mill.
Sabin could not read or speak English, but he proved to be a quick study and a brilliant student. Supporting himself by working in a lab while attending the New York University College of Medicine, he developed a method for dramatically speeding up the process of typing pneumococci viruses, which his mentor bigheartedly credited to him; ironically, one of the questions on the New York medical licensing exam he took after graduating NYU in 1931 was “Describe the Sabin method of rapid typing of pneumococci.”
Sabin trained in internal medicine, pathology, and surgery at Bellevue Hospital in New York City until 1933, conducted research at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London as a U.S. National Research Council Fellow, and went on to serve on the scientific staff of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research for five years before leaving New York for the Children’s Hospital Research Foundation in Cincinnati to conduct polio research. It was there that he discovered that the polio virus lived and multiplied in the small intestine and developed the idea that an oral vaccine could block the virus from entering the bloodstream and destroy it before it could spread.
Sabin’s interest in Eretz Yisrael began when he first traveled to the Middle East in 1943 as part of his work as a civilian advisor with the Army Epidemiological Board when he crossed the Sinai desert into Eretz Yisrael; the visit triggered his memories of his grandfather’s Torah stories about ancient Egypt and the Exodus and reawakened his Jewish feelings:
The fact that I was a Jew traveling in this area . . . I had feelings that I am sure were quite different from those of [my Christian associates], whose background was terribly different . . . That was my first exposure and we came through the desert – not quite following the path of the Children of Israel – in eight hours instead of forty years.
He recalled thereafter watching the rest of World War II through renewed Jewish eyes: “The impact of the slaughter of six million Jews in a most barbaric way left its imprint . . . it was never without its effect on me.” When he next traveled to Israel as a guest of the Israeli Ministry of Health in 1959, he noted with keen admiration:
They were creating a culture and a life that really had a tremendous emotional impact on me. Although my whole cultural pattern was that of an American, I could not divorce myself from this association of what I would call 4,000 years of heritage . . . After this trip, I became even more strongly influenced by the events in Israel than I ever was before . . . I wanted to help in whichever way I could.
Following Israel’s miraculous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Sabin chaired American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME), an organization that included many thousands of members from hundreds of campuses across the country. APPME promoted the idea that regional peace in the Mideast was possible and called for direct negotiations between the concerned parties. In 1968, Sabin led an APPME fact-finding mission to the region, meeting with leading political and intellectual figures in Jordan and Egypt, primarily “to determine whether there has been sufficient change in attitude toward the existence of a viable Jewish state in the Middle East to provide meaningful approaches to a durable peace that would benefit the Arab people as much or more than it would the Jews in Israel.”
Exhibited here is The Arabs Need and Want Peace, But – , the report issued by The Mission of APPME to Jordan and the United Arab Republic (June 24 to July 5, 1968). The delegation concluded their trip disillusioned, arriving at the “terrifyingly sad conclusion” that there had been no sufficient change and consequently there were no new meaningful approaches to the lasting peace they sought. Although APPME was a strong supporter of the existence of a Palestinian state in Eretz Yisrael, its report held Arab governments responsible for the failure to create such a state, and its general tenor is unambiguously pro-Jewish State:
The basic issue is that the Arab governmental and non-governmental leaders, who create and influence the popular attitudes of which they become the ultimate prisoners, continue to refuse to see any justice in the judgment of the world that Jews, like the Arabs, have historic roots in Palestine and are entitled to a viable state of their own . . . The fact that no Western European state has been able to ensure the defense of the elementary rights of the Jewish people, and to safeguard it against the violence of the Fascist executioners, explains the aspirations of the Jews to establish their own state . . .
In 1970, Sabin publicly criticized American anti-Israel policy and warned an American delegation that Egyptian and Jordanian acceptance of the U.S.-proposed Rogers Peace Plan was a duplicitous “tactical move to restore the pre-1967 borders and leave Israel vulnerable again.” A strong Israel supporter, he often publicly cited Israel as a model for the world, a country that he touted as being built from nothing by Jews willing to sacrifice of themselves for the common good, and he frequently spoke at fundraisers for Israeli and Jewish causes.
In the decade after his 1959 visit to Israel, Sabin traveled there annually and became heavily involved with various Israeli institutions of higher education and research, including Tel Aviv University and the Technion in Haifa, and, from 1965, he was a member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University. He was elected a member of the Board of Governors of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and he moved to Israel in 1969 (he lived there until 1972) to serve as president of the Institute in 1970.
A Tel Aviv newspaper described his arrival at Weizmann with great anticipation and excitement:
Tall, silver-haired Dr. Sabin spreads excitement with each word. His enthusiasm for his new challenge and his love for Israel are immediately apparent. Sabin explained to reporters “I want to be part of Israel. I am excited about this country.”
Unfortunately, Sabin had to step down after a relatively short two-year tenure because of coronary issues. However, he continued to serve on Weizmann’s board for another twenty years and he left the bulk of his estate to the Weizmann Institute upon his death in 1993.
Sadly and ironically, notwithstanding his passionate Zionism and strong Jewish feelings, Sabin not only intermarried but was proud of having done so. In this May 27, 1992, correspondence to Reverend Gerald G. Watt, a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the religious community called “The Congregation of the Resurrection,” Sabin writes with pride about Heloisa Dunshee de Abranches, a Brazilian divorcee who became his third wife in April 1972: “I told my wife, who is a devout Catholic, that I was glad that there are people like you in this world and that some of them are Catholic priests.”
Exhibited here is a photograph of Sabin receiving the Henrietta Szold Award at the Hadassah Convention in Washington, D.C. on October 28, 1963. He was cited for his development of the anti-polio oral vaccine that bears his name and he was honored by many other leading Jewish organizations, including the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, which cited him in 1972 for freeing the world of polio, and the “Dr. Albert B. Sabin Children’s Woodland” was named in his honor in the United States Freedom Forest outside of Jerusalem in 1962.
The recipient of over 40 honorary degrees, his many prestigious awards include the National Medal of Science (1970), the Medal of Liberty (1986), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1986).
After Sabin developed calcification of the cervical spine in 1983, he disclosed during a television interview that he had been diagnosed with intensely painful ascending paralysis and that he would dedicate the rest of his life to working on alleviating pain. He died of heart failure in 1992.