Thank You, Dr. Salk

Illustration from Thank You Dr. Salk, from Macmillan.

When the first major outbreak of polio occurred in the United States, parents were terrified. It was 1916, and no one understood how the disease worked, only that children were the most frequently affected. The New York Times reported on the plight of one parent, and his attempt to seek treatment for his child: “Unable to obtain a physician, he put the boy into an automobile and drove to the Smith Infirmary, but the child died on the way and the doctors at the hospital would not receive the body…. He drove around Staten Island with the boy’s body for hours looking for some one who would receive it.”

In some cases, polio caused paralysis, and sometimes, it affected the lungs, making it impossible to breathe. Children and adults of all ages died, and for those who survived, the physical effects of polio could be debilitating. Many lost the use of their arms and legs.

In an attempt to slow the spread of the disease, and protect the most vulnerable, signs went up, barring children under the age of sixteen from entering certain areas. Public health officials imposed quarantines, and they required that each affected person be isolated in a hospital, often against the wishes of the family. Travel and commerce were subject to major restrictions.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, health inspectors “stationed themselves at the railroad stations, ferries, and boat landings along the Delaware River… to bar all children under 16 years of age who attempted to cross into [Pennsylvania] without certificates of health.”

Over the following decades, scenes like this became a summer ritual. An annual wave of polio became almost normal. Swimming pools closed, and many children spent their vacations largely isolated from one another.

“We couldn’t go to the zoo. We couldn’t go to the beach… You didn’t know where you would encounter it,” remembered Geoffrey Ward, who contracted polio at the age of nine.

In 1921, future President Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio, leaving him with a paralytic illness which affected him throughout the rest of his life. “The fear of polio was a fear of something you had no defense against,” said another survivor. “Yesterday, it was the man down the block. Today, it could be you or your children.”

“It was a capricious disease,” said Ward. “It could crush your lungs or have no effect at all. It just depended entirely on chance.”

In 1929, Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw developed the “iron lung,” a machine designed to assist respiration. By “breathing” on the patient’s behalf, the machine helped those stricken with polio stay alive, even when the disease severely threatened their lungs. It consisted of an airtight pressurized tube, powered by an electric motor. By changing the pressure inside the tube, air could be pumped in and out of the patient’s lungs.

In 1935, some of the first attempts at a polio vaccine were tested, but the results were disastrous. In the 1940s, finally, there was a reason to celebrate, as Sister Kenny, an Australian nurse, successfully promoted a new treatment for polio, which used warm compresses to relax painful, contracting muscles, and massage for rehabilitation. Her methods had an enormously positive impact on the lives of many of those stricken with polio.

Still, the disease continued to spread. “July to September was polio season,” remembered one survivor. “And everybody, the way people look up baseball scores, during that period, they looked every morning to see how bad it was. Parents did. Certainly my mother did.”

Barbara Jay remembered the moment her parents realized she had been infected: “I got polio in the summer of 1949, age eight. In July, my parents took my sister and me to see ‘Geronimo’ at a Brooklyn movie theater. I wanted to stay until the end, so I didn’t tell them that I had a terrible headache. When it was over, my father carried me to the car; I couldn’t stand up. They knew.”

In 1950, my father, Frederick Hart, who was then six years old, contracted polio. His parents took him to Grady Hospital in Atlanta. Doctors said in order for him to survive, they would need to put him in an iron lung.

To get inside the iron lung, he had to be laid down on a bed (sometimes called a “cookie tray”), which slid in and out of the tube. Once inside, my father could hardly move, but at least he was safe. The side of the tube had portal windows so attendants could reach in and adjust limbs, sheets, or hot packs. He was able to communicate by looking up at a mirror which was positioned at an angle over his head. When he spoke to his family, he could only speak on the exhale, and he was interrupted several times a minute by the “whoosh” of the machine. For several weeks, my father lay there, able to breathe only with the assistance of the iron lung.

Fortunately, he survived, and with no lasting impairments. Strangely, my father remembered this as a happy time, as it was one of the last times, he said, that his parents paid any attention to him.

Less than five years later, Dr. Jonas Salk and his associates developed what they believed to be a safe, effective vaccine against polio, and began conducting field trials. To be sure of the results, Salk also developed the double-blind placebo process, a process which has since become standard in clinical trials. Almost two million children participated in Salk’s polio vaccine trials. The children were known as “Polio Pioneers.”

When the success of Salk’s vaccine trials was announced, there was an outpouring of joy. The press conference on April 12, 1955, brought together five hundred of the world’s top scientists and doctors, over a hundred journalists, and sixteen television crews. Across the country, church bells rang.

On the day of the announcement, Edward R. Murrow interviewed Jonas Salk on television. Salk told Murrow that he could not take sole credit for the vaccine, that his success had been built on the work of others. When Murrow then asked who owned the patent for the vaccine, Salk famously replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Between 1955 and 1957, incidence of polio in the U.S. fell by over 85%. As Salk’s original vaccine was improved, and distributed more and more widely around the world, polio all but disappeared.

What should be as clear now as it was back then is that we all depend on publicly funded medical research, and on making sure its benefits are broadly shared, for everyone’s sake. Another “covid winter” is as intolerable as another “polio summer.”

Lain Hart Gallery | Leopardi Writing Conference