By Steve Vivona
Fifty years ago this week Dr. Jonas Salk announced that the
Polio vaccine developed by him and his team of doctors had
completed successful field trials. Polio, one of the most insidious
diseases of the first half of the 20th century, is a viral
infection that primarily affected children, although it was
possible to contract it as an adult, as did President Franklin
Roosevelt. The worst cases caused paralysis and eventual death.
Dr. Paul Medici, an Adjunct Professor at St. John’s who has held
many administrative positions in the University over his nearly
60-year academic career, remembers well the terror caused by Polio.
“It was a debilitating disease and parents were terrified their
children would get it,” Dr. Medici noted, recalling the unwieldy
iron lungs used to treat victims of the disease.
At the time the vaccine was announced Dr. Medici was teaching
Biology in the then Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A faculty
member since 1948, he graduated from St. John’s College in 1942.
Spending nearly 70 years as a member of the University community he
has been instrumental in the University’s development, serving as
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Associate
Academic Vice President for Graduate Studies, Associate Vice
President and Associate Provost, in addition to other
Dr. Medici stressed that the arrival of the vaccine was not
without its share of problems. The first Polio vaccine had to be
injected and a batch containing live virus from a laboratory in
California was given to a number of children who contracted the
disease, resulting in some deaths.
Scores of researchers, including Dr. Medici, studied the effects
of the vaccine following its introduction in an attempt to
recognize risk factors associated with it. Through the course of
this research it was discovered that people under stress or being
treated with cortical steroids such as cortisone have compromised
immune systems and therefore were more susceptible to contracting
the disease. At the time Dr. Medici reported these observations to
the Surgeon General of the United States. “All I did was propose an
idea that was of assistance,” he observed.
Eventually the Salk vaccine was supplanted by an oral vaccine
developed by Dr. Albert Sabin which contained a greatly weakened
form of the virus. It was not only superior in terms of ease of
administration but provided a longer lasting immunization to the
disease, Dr. Medici noted.
Dr. Medici retired from his official duties 10 years ago and
currently teaches Biology of Health, a course offered in St. John’s
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I find it’s the kind of
course kids today need,” he stressed, adding that at 86 he intends
to continue as long as he is able and said simply, “I love