This Week In History: March 26 – April 1


This week in history: Jonas Salk makes the Polio vaccine, proponent and namesake of the Guillotine dies, and April Fools is celebrated.  Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

March 26th, 1953- Jonas Salk makes Polio vaccine

Jonas Salk, 1959

In 1952 there were 58,000 new cases reported in the United States, and more than 3,000 died from the disease. The next year, Jonas Salk announced on national radio that he had the first polio vaccine. He had already been working on this for a number of years. In 1948, he was awarded a grant to study the polio virus and develop a possible vaccine. By 1950, he had an early version of his polio vaccine.

Polio attacks the nervous system of the body and can cause varying degrees of paralysis. Children were the most susceptible, but adults could catch the disease as well. F.D. Roosevelt famously caught polio at age 39 and it left him permanently partially paralyzed. With the invention of the vaccine, cases dropped drastically and now most developed countries have eradicated the disease altogether. The polio vaccines are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.
Learn more about the vaccines and more in An Introduction to Infectious Diseases

March 28th, 1814 — Joseph-Ignace Guillotin dies (of natural causes)

Best known for his suggestion for the “humane form of execution,”

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin dies of natural causes in 1814. Although he did not invent the killing machine, his name became an eponym for it. As a member of the Estates-General of 1789, Guillotin turns his eye toward medical reform. Beheading in France was typically done by axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. Additionally, beheading was reserved for the nobility, while commoners were typically hanged. Guillotin’s thoughts were to equalize capitol punishment and make it painless.

He’s quoted in saying, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!”¹ Though successful in bringing this contraption to the masses, Guillotin would always regret his name being tied to the machine of death.

Learn more about the Guillotine and its victims in Living the French Revolution

April 1st– No Joking Here! April Fools Created

April Fools’ Day (All Fools’ Day) is celebrated around the world on 4/1. It is not a public holiday in any country, but the celebration certainly is popular. The first mention of April 1 and silliness comes from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1392). People, institutions, and brands globally will play jokes on their friends and fans, so keep your eyes peeled… if it seems fake, it probably is!

Get medieval with the world of Chaucer in The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
Attribution and citations:
¹ Chambers, William; Chambers, Robert (January–June 1844). “Dr Guillotin”. Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. W. Orr. I: 218–221. Retrieved 2009-12-30.