Later this year, the site of the D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children will receive a historic marker from Pennsylvania’s Historical and Museum Commission; the Allegheny County facility was the first site where the polio vaccine was tested on humans.
In the early 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh were working to develop a vaccine using dead strains of the virus.
Polio was a terrifying plague that came every summer and mostly affected young children. Infection could result in death or paralysis, or perhaps a lifetime imprisoned in an iron lung.
For preliminary testing, Salk choose the Watson Home, which was located northwest of Pittsburgh in Leet Township. The children there already suffered from polio, which meant Salk and his team could test the vaccine without fear of infecting new people.
Once administered, the kids showed increased antibodies, meaning the vaccine worked.
Salk next tested his vaccine on a second group, residents of the Polk State School in Venango County, whom were the first healthy human participants inoculated with the vaccine.
“For these children to be sort of the pioneers for this, the eradication of this disease really is heroic,” said Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Heinz History Center.
Later this year, a plaque will be posted near the Watson Home, now a rehabilitation center, to mark the children’s contribution to medical science.
The Watson Home has rebranded itself as couple times since Salk's trials. It is now known as the Watson Institute, continuing to serve special needs children, including those with autism, brain injuries and behavior disorders.
*This post has been updated. An earlier version misstated the Watson Home was torn down. A different building on the property has been demolished.