Covid Vaccine Launch Evokes Memories of Polio Era

Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” greeted the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines this month at Boston Medical Center, where the scene of dancing health care workers quickly spread on TikTok. Others shared triumphant selfies of their arms post-injection.

For Americans of a certain generation, the rollout evoked searing memories of an earlier era — one that rescued their childhood from fear and the sudden loss of classmates and siblings.

Lynne Seymour was 8 years old in 1955, when her mother, a nurse, let out a startling noise while listening to the radio at their home in Berkeley, Calif.

“She started jumping up and down, crying and laughing at the same time,” Ms. Seymour said. “It scared me a little because I didn’t know what was happening. So I said, ‘Mom, what is it?’”

Her mother explained that Dr. Jonas Salk, a medical researcher, had developed a vaccine for a dangerous virus. “It meant we wouldn’t have to worry about polio anymore, and children wouldn’t be in iron lungs and we would go back to the swimming pool,” Ms. Seymour said. “It was like a dark cloud had lifted.”

The first polio epidemic in the United States began in Vermont in 1894, an outbreak that killed 18 people and left at least 58 paralyzed. Waves of pernicious outbreaks, targeting children, would mar the next half-century. In the country’s worst single year, 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected and more than 3,000 died. Many were paralyzed, notably including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would become president and hide his disability. Others were consigned to life in an iron lung, a type of ventilator that encased a child’s body to ease breathing.

A litany of other celebrated figures also lived with the disease: the songwriter Joni Mitchell, the artist Frida Kahlo, the Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Ms. Seymour, center, in Berkeley, Calif., in 1954, with her mother, Marie Williams, her brother, Wayne, left, and sister, Adele.
via Lynn Seymour

Parents anxiously wondered how to keep their children safe from the disease, ordering them to stay away from swimming pools and movie theaters. They practiced the hand-washing routines that have become all too familiar to families this year. (It is now understood that the polio virus spread through consumption of water and food contaminated by fecal matter.)

Dr. Salk made an ambitious bet that he could develop a vaccine for polio using inactivated virus, which was killed using formalin. When his trial was successful in April 1955, church bells rang and households cheered.

American children had been taught for years to dread summer because it so often brought polio outbreaks. A vaccine promised that they could go out and play again, and swim without as much worry.

Stefan Krieger, 74, remembered his family’s enthusiastic reaction to the news. Just a few years earlier, he caught a cold and had to miss a friend’s birthday party; everyone else who attended, including his best friend, contracted polio.

“Many of us had a classmate whose sister or brother had been stricken,” said Arlene Agus, 71.

Ms. Agus’s school in New York City distributed the vaccine in alphabetical order so she was the first to get the shot, with a lollipop as her reward.

“Over half-a-century later, I can still remember the expressions of relief from the long, winding chain of students standing behind me, grateful that they weren’t in my spot,” she said.

via Jonathan Salk

The federal government licensed the vaccine within hours of the announcement and manufacturers began their production efforts. “An historic victory over a dread disease,” a newscaster’s voice declared in an April 12 reel from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The announcement includes clips of men in suits rolling carts of vaccine shipments, much like this month’s images of coronavirus vaccine shipments. “Here scientists usher in a new medical age.”

After all of the fanfare, some children remembered getting the vaccine as anti-climactic. Philip McLeod, 77, who was living in Nanton, Alberta, at the time, said he and his classmates were lined up very quickly and then it was over. “It was hard to believe as a 12-year-old that was going to save your life, because it was so routine,” he said.

But visibly, the creek and the skating rink by his home, long abandoned out of fear — similar to the scenes today at many communal playgrounds and parks — once again filled with the sounds of children playing.

Among the first children in the country to receive the vaccine were Dr. Salk’s three sons. Peter Salk, the oldest, recalled their father gathering them near the kitchen table and instructing them to roll up their sleeves and expose their triceps. Then Dr. Salk moved from the stove, where he had sterilized needles and syringes, and injected his sons.

“It was an opportunity to demonstrate my father’s confidence in the work he had done,” Peter Salk said. “And to get us kids protected.”

John Francis Peters for The New York Times

When the shot was later administered in a 1954 field trial at their Pittsburgh elementary school, one of the teachers asked Darrell Salk, who was only 6 at the time, to comfort a crying schoolmate and explain that his father’s vaccine was safe.

“What did I know?” Darrell said. “I was a kid. But I did my best to reassure him it was helping to protect people from a very nasty disease.”

As thousands of children began to receive the vaccine, Dr. Salk’s sons got caught up in the waves of excitement. Five-year-old Jonathan Salk called his best friend to announce the good news: “Billy! I’m famous! And so is my father!”

Still, much like the atmosphere surrounding the debut of this month’s coronavirus vaccines, introduction of the polio immunization was bittersweet for many families who had already lost relatives.

Jean Norville, 72, remembered her older brother Tommy as a “saint,” so gentle-hearted that when she slammed her finger in a car door, he said he wished it were his own instead. Tommy fell sick with polio in October 1951, and his parents drove at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour to a hospital in Louisville, Ky., where he was put in an iron lung. Their mother, refusing to leave Tommy’s side, slept in the hospital bathtub.

He died soon afterward. The neighbors were so afraid of getting polio that Ms. Norville’s family held Tommy’s funeral with an empty coffin. When the vaccine arrived, Ms. Norville’s mother rushed her children to the health department to get the shot.

“Think of Tommy,” her mother said.

via Johnathon Norville

For Catherine Griffice, 79, the cure for polio carries a special legacy. Her father, Frederick Bland, caught the disease in 1948, when he was a third-year medical student. Paralyzed and unable to climb stairs, he was carried out of the house on a chair and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died four days later.

Her mother remarried, to another doctor, who then vaccinated all of their neighbors in Wittenberg, Wis. “He did it in honor of my dad,” Ms. Griffice said.

The initial polio vaccine rollout did not go smoothly. Within a month, six cases of polio had been linked to a vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif. It was soon discovered that Cutter had failed to completely kill the virus in some vaccine batches, a mistake that caused more than 200 polio cases and 11 deaths. The surgeon general asked Cutter to issue a recall, and distribution ground to a halt.

Months later, in the summer and fall of 1955, Boston was hit by a polio outbreak, and Ellen Goodman, then 6 years old, became sick. “I remember being in bed, and I felt this electric current going up and down my arms and legs,” she said. “Then I went to move and my left leg was numb.”

Decades later, Ms. Goodman, 71, suffers post-polio syndrome, with symptoms including chronic fatigue and difficulty walking. “My life has been defined by this disease,” she said. “To think it could have been avoided.”

The vaccine program restarted months later, and polio cases fell sharply. Elvis Presley agreed to be vaccinated on national television to build public confidence in the shot. But the disease didn’t disappear. U.S. case counts rose again beginning in 1958, especially in urban areas. The country’s last case from community spread was recorded in 1979. Though two strains of polio have been eradicated, a third remains and still circulates in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For those scarred by memories of the polio epidemic, a vaccine against Covid can’t arrive soon enough. Many older Americans, particularly vulnerable to the disease, have been shut in and separated from their children and grandchildren for much of this year.

Ms. Norville hasn’t left her home since February and is eagerly waiting for a shot. “My son said, ‘If I could, I would bring you the vaccine today.’”

For the Salk family, the relief is accompanied by a sense of pride, given their father’s role in advancing scientific understanding of immunization. But the sons are also worried about opposition to inoculation against any disease.

“He would have been delighted,” Darrell Salk said of his father. “But he would be horrified by the number of people concerned about using the vaccine. I can see him closing his eyes and shaking his head.”

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