Lesson Plan: Lessons Learned from the Development of the Polio Vaccine

The Polio Epidemic

University of California at Berkeley historian of medicine Elena Conis talked the symptoms and spread of the Polio in the United States. She also made comparisons between the spread and responses to polio and COVID-19.


The polio vaccine was first developed in 1953 by Jonas Salk. By 1979, the United States had eradicated polio. This lesson looks at the history of the development and distribution of the polio vaccine and has students compare the events occurring during this time to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students will view archival videos and videos explaining the events to formulate a list of strategies and lessons learned from the rollout of the polio vaccines.



    Have students come up with/research definitions of the following words and terms that will be used throughout the lesson. Once students are done, identify and address any misconceptions.

    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    • Eradication

    • Epidemiologist

    • Immune

    • Inoculation

    • Paralysis

    • Vaccine

    • Virus
  • INTRODUCTION: After reviewing the vocabulary, provide historical background on the polio epidemic by having students view the following video clip and answer the questions. Students can use the handout to access the video clips and activities in this lesson.

    Handout: The Polio Epidemic and Vaccine (Google Doc)

  • Video Clip 1: The Polio Epidemic (6:13)

    • How does polio spread? What are the symptoms and effects?

    • Describe the spread of polio in the early 20th century.

    • How were patients with polio treated in the early 20th century?

    • How did the town of Hickory, NC illustrate the severity of polio outbreaks?

      • What effect did the polio epidemic have on people’s behaviors?
    • What actions did communities take to prevent the spread of polio?

    • Based on this clip, explain the similarities and differences between the polio epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Once students understand how polio affected individuals and communities, they will explore different aspects of how the polio vaccine was developed, distributed and eventually used to eradicate polio in the United States. Using the handout, students will access each of the video clips and take notes with the chart. Students will focus on the following aspects of the polio vaccine. Students can also answer the guiding questions associated with each video clip to structure answers.

    Handout: The Polio Epidemic and Vaccine (Google Doc)

    • Development and Distribution of the Vaccine

    • Government Role in the Process

    • Public Response to the Polio Vaccine

    • Impact of the Polio Vaccine

  • Video Clip 2: The Development and Distribution of the Polio Vaccine in the 1950s (4:32)

    • Who developed the polio vaccine? Why was the development of the polio vaccine significant?

    • Describe the planning that took place before the polio vaccine was developed.

    • What concerns and problems occurred during the distribution of the polio vaccine?

    • How did the federal government step in to address these problems?

    • What lessons can be learned from the rollout of the polio vaccine in the 1950s?
  • Video Clip 3: Testing the Polio Vaccine (4:24)

    • How did celebrities contribute to the effort to develop and promote the polio vaccine?

    • Describe how the polio vaccine was tested for safety and effectiveness.

    • What was public’s overall perception of the polio vaccine? Why do you think this was?

    • Why were some people resistant to getting the polio vaccine? What was the impact of this resistance?
  • Video Clip 4: The Role of the CDC in the Polio Vaccine (3:41)

    • Describe how drug manufacturers were used to mass produce Jonah Salk’s polio vaccine.

    • What problems occurred initially with the mass production of the polio vaccine?

    • How did the Surgeon General and the CDC address the problems with the vaccine?

    • How did their actions during the distribution of the polio vaccine change the role of the CDC?
  • Video Clip 5: The Eradication of Polio in the United States (3:40)

    • When was the last recorded case of polio in the United States?

    • How does the timeline of the eradication of polio in the Unites States compare to the eradication of Smallpox?

    • Describe the initial success of the polio vaccine in reducing the spread of polio.

    • How were different groups of people impacted by polio after the vaccine was developed? Why was this?

    • What strategies were used to inoculate the entire population of the United States?
  • APPLICATION AND CONCLUSION: Review the students notes and thoughts after viewing the video clips. Using the information from the video clips and their notes, students will apply what they learned to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Students will use the last section of the handout to brainstorm similarities and differences between the polio and COVID-19 outbreaks. Using that information, students will develop a list of at least five lessons or strategies that the government and the public can use as a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and distributed. For each lesson learned, students should support their response using historical examples of the videos.

    Handout: The Polio Epidemic and Vaccine (Google Doc)

    To conclude the lesson, have students share their ideas with the class. The class can discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each idea and develop a comprehensive class list.


    The History of Vaccines- Using the timeline on the History of Vaccines website, choose one infectious disease (other than polio) included on the timeline. Summarize the history of that infectious disease and the development of the vaccine(s) associated with it.

    Polio Vaccine Timeline- Using the information from the video clips and found on the Science History Institute’s website , choose the five most important events between the first case of polio until its eradication in the United States. Develop a timeline that includes the date, summary and significance of each of these events.


    • How did the polio epidemic change the federal government’s role in public health?

    • What should the government’s role be in developing and distributing a vaccine?

    • How did polio impact various parts of society differently?

Additional Resources


  • Centers For Disease Control And Prevention
  • Coronavirus
  • Epidemiologist
  • Eradication
  • Immune Response
  • Inactivated Virus
  • Infantile Paralysis
  • Inoculated
  • Iron Lung
  • Jonah Salk
  • March Of Dimes
  • Outbreak
  • Paralysis
  • Polio
  • Public Health
  • Shareholder
  • Smallpox
  • Surgeon General
  • The Cutter Incident
  • Vaccination
  • Vaccine
  • Viral Infection


Bureaucracy & RegulationHealthU.S. History


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