Polio Pioneers Tell Their Stories

Card from the 1954 Poliovirus Vaccine TrialHistory of Vaccines blog readers have been sending us their recollections from the landmark 1954 trial of Jonas Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine. We had posted several of their stories to our blog as comments on an earlier blog post, but they disappeared in a transition to our new website.

Recently, a kind blog reader saw our request for a photograph of a Polio Pioneer card. So we’re using this as an opportunity to post the photo and assemble the recollections of the Polio Pioneers and polio survivors who have written to us. Clearly, they all have vivid memories of their part in the trial, and most look back with pride on their contribution.

Mrs. K___ sent us a photo of the card (reproduced here) marking her participation in the trial. As Mrs. K____ wrote, “I remember lining up to get the shots. I thought I was in kindergarten, but it turns out I was probably in 1st grade. There were 2 lines. Some of the children got the real vaccine, and some got the placebo (we thought it was water). There was a series of three, so we always had to go on the line we were sent to. After the test was over our parents were told who had gottten the real vaccine and who had gotten the placebo. Lucky for me I had gotten the real because the children that did not get the real had to get the shots all over again. I was glad I didn’t have to go through it again.” And, also from Mrs. K____, a bit later: “As I recall now, I remember there were three rows.  I just remembered the two rows because I wouldn’t have had any thought of what the children in the third row had gotten (or not), so I just remembered the two rows. Now that I saw the picture, from Kansas, on your website, that was exactly what it was like.”

Indeed, Mrs. K____’s memories are probably correct: kindergartners were not enrolled in the trial. Children in grades 1-3 were included: in some communities, first graders received the injections, and in others, children in all three grades were vaccinated.

Mrs. K____ participated in the trial in Queens, New York, and was obviously enrolled in one of the vaccinated/placebo parts of the trial. (In some areas, community members objected to employing a control group that received injected placebos. Rather, these communities established observed control groups of children who did not receive any type of injection and who were simply observed for signs of polio infection.)

From David M. Oshinsky’s excellent Polio: An American Story (Oxford University Press, 2005), the table below shows the enrollment and number of paralytic polio cases in the different parts of the trial.

Participants in the 1954 Poliovirus Vaccine Trial, from Oshinsky DM, Polio

Below are the recollections of other Polio Pioneers and polio survivors, submitted via blog comment or emailed to us.

Mrs. S___:  “I am a Polio Pioneer. I believe my entire third grade class at Boyd Elementary in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was invited to participate. Dad still has my card and maybe the pin. I think my mother, who was very afraid of the possibility of getting polio, was not unlike other mothers at that time. My family welcomed my chance to participate and considered me a hero. I didn’t appreciate the importance at the time, but realized it as time passed and Mother continued to talk about it with pride.”

Mrs. T____: My name is Sharon M. T___, and I was a Polio Pioneer in 1954. I grew up in Norfolk,VA, and attended Crossroads Elem.

All of these years I have wondered the long term effects of the vaccine.  My mother was very active at my school, so she also took the vaccine.  She stated that if I was involved, then she should also receive the vaccine.  She had always kept the card and button in a safe place, so now they are still in excellent condition.”

Another Mrs. K____: I was a Polio Pioneer.  I was probably eight or nine at the time I participated in the program.  I don’t have a Polio Pioneer card, but there’s a possibility I still have the pin.

Not too long ago my sister told me how surprised she was that my parents allowed me to have the vaccine.  I know now there was controversy at the time whether it would be safe.  I guess I will never know if I got the antipolio serum or the placebo.  I remember taking a bus from our school, Osolo Elementary School, Elkhart, Indiana, and going to another school for the shots.  I remember standing in really long lines and the shots hurt.

Mrs. G____: I was a polio pioneer in 1954 in Levittown, Long Island, NY.  I believe it was Summit Lane School where we congregated to be immunized with either the placebo or the true serum.  I contracted polio in August of 1952, I believe I was one of the first in Nassau County.  Shortly after, my sister Joanne H____, fell victim to it as well.  We fortunately had non-paralytic polio and neither, outside of a slight swing to my left foot, had any lasting effects.  I am now 63 years old; my sister is 60.  I remember seeing a card where it stated that I had the actual vaccine but cannot say where it might be today.  I was wondering if there are any archives where I can look up to see if it’s documented.

Mr. O___: … I am 58. I contracted polio at the age of three in 1955. I was paralyzed from the waist down for the better part of 1.5 years before I recovered without permanent paralysis. My parents and grandparents along with all of my aunts and uncles are deceased, although my family and extended family played a huge role in my eventual healing. I know that I was the subject of an article in either the Plain Dealer and or Cleveland Press. I do remember several trips to University Hospitals and sort of remember a few stints in the iron lung.

Thank you, all, for sharing your memories of this important vaccine trial, and your memories of surviving polio, with us.

For more information on the Salk trial, see our article The Scientific Method in Vaccine History. Additionally, University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics offers detailed information on the trial.