In February, 1954, Jonas Salk led the first mass polio inoculation among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders in about 20 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania elementary schools, including mine. The list is below. We knew we were part of an historic field trial, and our parents were desperate. Just two years earlier 58,000 Americans got polio, thousands died and many more thousands were disabled. My brother, older by three years, was one of the lucky ones who got polio but did not suffer terrible lasting consequences. Others in his class were not so lucky.
I remember the long tables with white tablecloths and the nurses in white uniforms in our school’s gym. I remember the gym mats laid out for the “girls” – who were expected to feel faint after their shot. And I remember a sense of importance – that we little kids were brave pioneers.
Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine, famously saying "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” He is said to have given up potential piles of money in exchange for the attempt to eradicate this nasty disease with a cheap vaccine. However, there is some controversy around this, with some scholars saying that the National Foundation on Infantile Paralysis (later the March of Dimes), which supported the polio research, had already concluded that the vaccine couldn’t be patented.
By the following year this experiment was declared a success – it actually worked – and Jonas Salk became a household word – especially in households like mine. Salk was, like my parents, the child of uneducated Jewish immigrants. In a time when anti-Semitism and racism were openly practiced – for example, there were many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh where people of color and Jews were unable to buy property – Salk was a symbol of pride to the community. After all, “A 1954 Gallup poll showed that more Americans knew about the polio field trials than could give the full name of the US President.” (Wikipedia).
Albert Sabin, Salk’s arch-rival, developed an oral vaccine that was licensed in 1962. Savin never achieved the same rock-star status as Salk, although it was widely used around the world. The two got into an ugly dust-up apparently, but the important result is that polio is no longer the kind of threat described in the scary novel Nemesis by Phillip Roth, which takes place during a 1944 New Jersey polio outbreak. I recently read it in the car and was reminded how the timing of the vaccine preserved my generation and those coming after us.
The participating elementary schools, mine included, according to the Pitt Chronicle: “In February 1954, Salk inoculated first-, second-, and third-grade students from Leetsdale, Emsworth, Sewickley, Fair Oaks, and St. James elementary schools. Later that month, inoculations were given to children at 19 city schools: Arsenal, Belman, Bennett, Burgwin, Clayton, Colfax, Conroy, Crescent, Davis, Dilworth, Forbes, Frick, Fulton, Linden, Madison, Rogers, Sunnyside, and Wightman. In March 1954, students were vaccinated at seven parochial schools: St. Lawrence, St. Stephen’s, Holy Rosary, Sacred Heart, Resurrection, St. Basil, and St. George.”