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Through a Microscope

(1) In the 1590s, Dutch makers of eyeglasses began experimenting with lenses and created the first microscope. Early microscopes allowed scientists to make important discoveries. For example, the life inside a single drop of water could be studied for the first time. But 400 years ago, microscopes weren’t powerful enough to reveal viruses. It took advanced microscopes to identify these mysterious microorganisms.

(2) In the 20th century, one of the most challenging and deadly puzzles in medicine was polio. This highly infectious virus terrified families for 40 years beginning in 1916. Polio spreads through personal contact, and every summer it would break out again. One of the worst epidemics was 1949, when more than 40,000 cases were reported in the United States. That year, 2,720 people died from polio.

Fluorescence Microscope
Fluorescence Microscope

(3) Even if it didn’t kill, polio could paralyze. Sometimes it was temporary. Sometimes it was permanent. Some victims needed a wheelchair or a machine to help them breathe for the rest of their lives. Many victims were young, but not all. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio at age 39. He survived it, but could never again walk or stand without leg braces or crutches.

(4) Jonas Salk had helped develop a flu vaccine used by the Army during World War II. A microbiologist, he used a microscope to study microorganisms, including viruses. He had studied the body’s immune system. He used samples of the polio virus developed by another medical team. From these he was able to make large quantities of the virus. He developed the first successful polio vaccine that used an inactive (“dead”) form of the virus. It was given by injection.

(5) Another polio vaccine, developed by Albert Sabin, is taken by mouth. Together the Salk and Sabin vaccines have eliminated polio from most of the world. In 2017, there were cases in only a handful of countries: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria.

(6) Today’s microscopes can magnify images that are thousands of times smaller than a wavelength of light. Thirty-two years before his death in 1995, Jonas Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California. Using modern microscopes, the Salk Institute continues to make breakthroughs in immunology and other areas. Recently, the Institute published research about new discoveries made with microscopes the size of a penny. These tiny new microscopes could lead to pain treatments for spinal cord injuries, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and more.


Source: Through a Microscope
By Samuel Wells, Mary Treat & Frederick Leroy Sargent, 1886; Chapter 15 of Through a Microscope (abridged), Gutenberg.org, Public Domain

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