Remembering Albert Sabin and the vaccine that changed the world

Albert Sabin 1956

Dr. Albert Sabin in 1956 examining polio virus strains.

Medicine and public health lost a luminary 25 years ago this week with the death of Dr. Albert Sabin. During his life, Sabin became a household name, famous the world over for his development of the oral polio vaccine. He was also a role model for many clinicians and researchers because he refused to patent the vaccine.

I recall a conversation with Sabin at a medical conference in Miami in the early 1960s. My wife and I had come down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Sabin, sitting alone having his toast and coffee, motioned us over and invited us to join him. He had something he wanted to talk about that he thought I might find interesting, as we were both involved in work on vaccines. What he described went far beyond interesting.

In those days, children in the United States were immunized much the same way they are now: individually, on a schedule determined by a child’s age. But in Cuba, Sabin told me, they’d done it differently. In a country without reliable refrigeration, it didn’t make sense to try to store perishable vaccine in every hospital and clinic. Instead, the health authorities had decided to vaccinate the entire country in one fell swoop — all of the children in a matter of just a few days. Six months later, they came back and did it again.

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