Sixtieth Anniversary for Polio Pioneers

Card from the 1954 Salk vaccine trial, courtesy Marsha DrakeSixty years ago tomorrow the largest clinical trial in history began. On April 26, 1954, thousands of U.S. schoolchildren rolled up their sleeves to take Jonas Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine. Newspapers reported that Randall Kerr of McClean, Virginia, was the first child in the trial to get the shot. (Thousands of others in earlier stages of research had received the vaccine, including Salk’s wife and children.)

The 1954 trial was blinded, meaning that the children didn’t know whether they received the vaccine or a saline placebo injection. Regardless, most viewed themselves if not exactly as test subjects (which they certainly were) but as Polio Pioneers, as they and their parents were encouraged to think of them. About 1.3 million first- second- and third-graders participated in the trial as vaccine recipients (about 422,000), placebo recipients (about 201,000), and observed control subjects (about 725,000) (see the official report on the trial for details on the study design). About nine months after the trial ended, Thomas Francis, MD, announced in April 1955 that the vaccine group had significantly fewer cases of polio than the control groups, and the vaccine was licensed.

Over the past few years, scores of participants in the 1954 vaccine trials have posted comments on this blog. Many participants recall being afraid both of getting the shots and of getting polio, and many remember friends and family members who became ill with polio. Memory can be tricky: several people remembered getting the polio “drops” in this trial – though the oral vaccine, in liquid form, would not be used for several more years. They were probably revaccinated with the oral vaccine later because of its better immunogenicity.

Most of the participants I’ve corresponded with take pride in their role in the trial. But some of them question the methods used to enroll children in the trial and remark on the changes we’ve seen since the 1950s in the ethical considerations that guide medical research.

Below are some of their reminiscences, taken directly from their blog comments. (The original blog post is here. And you can read more about the history of polio and the vaccine at our timeline.)

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I was in first or 2nd grade, at Winthrop Avenue Elementary School in Bellmore NY in 1954. My father was the school Doctor and he had to administer the Polio Vaccines to all the children. It was a test where half the children received a Placebo and the other half got the salk polio vaccine. My father learned that i was to get the placebo, so he told me that during the day when we had to get the polio vaccine shots- there were three shots at different days- I would get the placebo. However at night he would take the real vaccine and bring it home – he took enough for me and my younger brother my mother and himself. We all were sworn to secrecy- However he said MY kids are not going to be guinea pigs. Even at a young age of 6 or 7 years I was scared but proud. My father was brave but even then there was a sense that the vaccine was important and he was not going to have his kids take a placebo and be vulnerable to the ravages of polio. Throughout the years until he died we had a difficult relationship but I must admit that even now I was proud that I was a true Polio Pioneer= even if it was a secret-I GOT A POLIO PIONEER METAL PIN -Sara

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I was a Polio Pioneer and still have my Polio Pioneer card. I received the shots in or around 1954, while attending EF Swinney grade school in Kansas City, Mo. I remember standing in line, awaiting the shot. -Anonymous

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I was also a Polio Pioneer in the 2nd grade at Nathan Hale Elementary in Huntington, NY. I remember my parents having some heated conversations about my participation. We had the sugar cubes; not shots and I received the real vaccine. -Cory

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I was a polio pioneer in 1954 and have the card which my mother kept in my school scrapbook. I remember that I didn’t like getting shots, but was brave and didn’t flinch! Also I was very glad to find out that we got the real thing, not the placebo, because that meant that I was already vaccinated and didn’t need more shots. My mother reinforced the idea that we should be very proud to be Polio Pioneers, but it was a little bit scary to me that we were being guinea pigs, actually injecting a virus into us, even though it was killed. -Juliana

As I remember there was only one child in our grade school of 200 who came down with polio before the vaccine and he lived just down the street from me, so it was scary back then thinking it might happen to us next. We were all very glad that a vaccine was developed and we didn’t have to worry about getting polio.

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It has been interesting reading other people’s comments. I am attaching my scanned document to the e-mail. I also have the pin, but not with me right now in my winter home. -Juliana, vaccinated in Multnomah County Oregon 1954

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I am a Polio Pioneer. I received the vaccine at Highland Park Central Elementary School when I was in the second grade. I do have my card and pin. I recall we went across the street to the “auditorium/gym” and standing in line to receive the vaccine. Seems like I remember it as an “adventure” at the time! -Jeannette

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My sister and I were polio pioneers. I was in first grade and my sister in the second. I received the “real” vaccine. My sister received the placebo. I remember she was upset because she had to receive a second “shot” to get the vaccine. I do have a card and pin. -Claudia

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I was a polio pioneer when I was 8 years old, at Gulfcrest Elementary School in Houston, Texas in 1954. I believe I still have the card, but the pin was stolen along with my jewelry in a burglary about 20 years ago. I was more upset about the loss of the pin than I was about the jewelry ! I don’t remember finding out whether I had the actual vaccine or the placebo, but always assumed I had the vaccine as my older brother was striken with polio and I seemed to be protected from the disease. Some years later, I was also given the Sabin vaccine through a school in Decatur, Illinois and had a very strong reaction (fever and couldn’t move my neck for several weeks ). I recovered fully and have had no negative affects since then. I remember getting the vaccine well. After we went through the line to get the vaccine we were given a comic book and peppermint stick to enjoy while we sat in the hall for the rest of the class to finish. –Anonymous

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I was in second grade at PS #3 in Yonkers when they gave out the polio vaccine as a trial. The gymnasium was set up like a hospital with screens, nurses, and the smell of alcohol permeating the room. Some kids never had a shot before. I had, so I wasn’t too scared. The nurse held your head and turned it away from looking at the needle. I received the real vaccine, my cousin had the water placebo. I still have my button and card. –Jane

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I was a Polio Pioneer in 1954. The test site was Shelby, OH. All of us participating in the research were excited…until the injection. I was in the placebo group so I was given the “real” inoculation after the test results were released. Like many others, I was given a Polio Pioneer card which I still have. — Patricia

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I took part in the Salk vaccine trial in Naperville, IL. (newspaper archives say that whole counties were chosen to participate – mine was DuPage: http://veridian.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19540406.2.54 ). I don’t remember the “Polio Pioneer” title or getting a card or pin, but I remember we lined up in the school gym to get the injections, and I knew that it was a study to see whether the vaccine would work. I think most of us, and most parents, were happy (plus scared, at least I was) to be part of it – polio was so frightening, and we felt we were part of something important. I think I turned out to have gotten the placebo, but not sure after all this time. — Mary

Reply

Hello, Anonymous – thanks for the comment. If you were in the placebo group, you would have been given the vaccine after the observation period. That was the protocol in any case. I hope your older brother recovered quickly. Regards from the History of Vaccines staff.

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I was a polio pioneer. I received a little metal button with polio pioneer on it. I still have the button. This was 1954. -Cindy

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My grade school class at Arthur McGill school in New Castle PA took part in the polio vaccine trial. We lined up in the hall and put out our arms to get the shot. I remember fainting after returning to my classroom.

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I dont recall getting a card but we may have been given them. -Anonymous 

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I remember getting the shot in school and then going on the jungle gym. I think that stretching out my arm made it feel better. I do not have the card but I do still have my pin. -Leo

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I think I was in second grade when I received the first vaccination which in fact was a placebo, so then I had to have the actual vaccination. I was sent home with a piece of paper for my parents to sign, and though I argued against it (fear of shots), I lost. I was in PS 104 in Bronx, NY. I was very fearful. We had to line up in the hallway before entering the dreaded vaccination room which smelled of alcohol. The kid in front of me threw up, so it was not a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, I have no paper work. I vaguely remember receiving a pin. -HR

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My Salk Vaccine story is an incredible one……one I have never heard from anyone else. I was in 2nd or 3rd grade at Joseph P. Stockton Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois in 1955 and 1956 respectively. In one of those years I ACCIDENTALLY was given two (2) shots of Salk Vaccine approx. 1 minute apart in the school auditorium. That night I had a raging fever at home and by the next morning paralysis began to set in. I was paralyzed from the waist down for approx. two weeks and then gradually relearned to walk and went back to school. I am now 65 and in a medical crisis situation in Houston Texas area and cannot find a doctor to treat all that is wrong……including a very severe case of Post Polio Syndrome that has been progressively getting worse each year. I am on medicare and desperately need someone to help me. There must be some information the authorities or medical community can get from studying the facts of my case and my horrible health consequences from those two shots given simultaneously……please respond at least with a name who I can contact. God Bless and thank you. –Linda P. 

Reply

Dear Linda, I’m so sorry to hear about your health problems. You may already be familiar with the work of Post-Polio Health. If not, though, I would suggest getting in touch with them to find out about resources for polio survivors. Their website is http://www.post-polio.org/. They are in St. Louis and their phone is 314-534-0475. Though it doesn’t look like it’s been updated recently, they have a section on their website where they list current research studies that are enrolling participants. You may find an opportunity there. Best wishes for your improved health, from HistoryofVaccines.org

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I was a polio pioneer in a parochial school in North Arlington New Jersey. I still have the pin and have vivid memories about the experience. Now that I have worked in medical research ethics for a number of years I look back on the design of the study and the “consent form” that our parents signed and know that it could never happen now. It gave them the “opportunity” to have their child participate. I don’t recall any child in my class who did not participate. Our parents so feared the disease that they were happy to volunteer their children. Years later I met a woman who contracted polio and I am grateful to my parents. -Anita

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I was a “Polio Pioneer”. I received my shots at Greenacres School in Greenacres, Florida. I do not recall ever knowing if I received the placebo or not. But we did move shortly after I got the shots. We were still in the same area, but about 5 miles from Greenacres. Shortly after we moved I met a girl with polio- I was glad I had gotten my shots. I remember getting all of the subsequent immunizations, also. The last was the sugar cubes in about 1969, I think. –Frances W.

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I was a Polio Pioneer and received my shots at Quarton Elementary School in Birmingham, Michigan. I received the real vaccine, a card and a pin. I still have the card and pin. My mother had had polio as a child. She walked with the help of braces and crutches so this breakthrough was really celebrated in our family. The success of the vaccine removed a lot of fear from all our lives and we were all so grateful to Dr. Salk for this amazing vaccine. -Anonymous

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I was vaccinated in Syracuse, New York at Edward Smith School when I was in second grade. A girl in my class had died of polio. We were very aware of the dangers and rules: don’t lick another child’s popsicle, etc. My mother told me later that parents were not told whether their child got the real vaccine or the placebo (or whether the vaccine worked) until a year after we were vaccinated. I was one of the lucky ones who got the real vaccine. I was not especially bothered by shots, but a few years later we got what I think was the Sabin vaccine, which was on sugar cubes, and we were happy with that. I don’t remember a card but I still have my Polio Pioneer button. –Carol B.

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I was in 1st grade at Newhall “A” (now West Newhall) near Grand Rapids Michigan. Both my cousin and brother were pioneers also. They received the real shots, I received the placebo and had to have all the shots again the next year. My mother and aunt said they decided that if they believed in science, they should let us participate in this trial. I have sent an e-mail with a copy of my Polio Pioneer card attached, as well as the card showing the vaccine I had to get again the next year.  -Lynne

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I was a Polio Pioneer at David W. Harlan School in Wilmington, DE. I was in 2nd grade and wore a new (dark green print) dress that day because we were going to be on the local news. I was unprepared for the blood tests that accompanied the shots for a random group and unfortunately, I was chosen – possibly the root of a life long needle phobia! Btw, there is a Polio Pioneer in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum.  -Jane

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Polio pioneer at Forest Park Elementary School, Little Rock, Arkansas. I remember standing in the hall in a long line–excited and proud, but not looking forward to the shot itself. We were vaccinated in the cafeteria. -Anonymous

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I’m a polio pioneer of 1954 New York City Manhattan ps 61 on 12st.but I can not fine my pin or certificent so can I git a new one thank you John

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I was one of the kids who got the shots. I remember being brought into a large room where we lined up and were then taken one at a time behind a screen to have the injections. The image of classmates disappearing behind the screen, the occasional crying, and finally re-emerging with tears on their cheeks is still with me. I don’t think it was at The Birch Lane School, though. More likely one of the “annexes” they were using or Parkside or Lockhart. In 1958 my family moved to Cincinnati where, Dr. Albert Sabin was handing out his sugar cubes. Again, I was lined up in a gym with fellow students and given the medicine. I have been looking for my Polio Pioneer card for years… I don’t think we got pins. -Paul K.

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6 years old in Watetypwm, lMass. in 1953 Polio Pionear. Hosmer School -Paul

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I was one of the first child to receive the real polio vaccine at Public School PS 9 in Brooklyn , New York they took a picture of me in the front page of the New York Post. Thank you. I live now for many years in my home land Puerto Rico. -Emerito

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I was in Grade 2 at Gorsebrook School in Halifax Nova Scotia when they asked for Volunteers to take blood tests to see if we had received the real vaccine Not understanding what a blood test was I put my hand up :). I have the card and pin but cannot put my finger on it at the moment.
This has proved to be very special to me since I am a Rotarian and one of our biggest International projects is to eradicate polio around the world. –Betty Ann

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Your posting caught my eye because I have experienced the exact experience as you. I was 8 years old when the initial round of polio shots was given in 1954 in Lexington, Ky. After graduating from college, I moved to Louisville, Ky. and in 1976 join the Rotary Club and very much remember the Rotary International project to eradicate polio around the world. I actually looked at this website tonight because the news indicated there was a new outbreak of polio in some foreign countries. This was upsetting to hear because of my prior participation as a “Polio Pioneer” and Rotary Club member. -Gilbert

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I was in the second grade at Putman City elementary school in Oklahoma City. I remember lining up on the playground for a series of three jabs. The third was in the summer as I recall. I don’t know if this experience affected me, but I became a scientist – Chemistry Professor. -Bob

 

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My older brother, my sister and I were polio pioneers at Newhall East elementary school in Wyoming, Michigan. I remember talking about it with my parents afterward. I I don’t remember a card or anything like that, but remember feeling proud(as only a child can feel) that I was one of the first to get the Salk vaccine. -Anonymous

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In 1954 I was in second grade and received the Salk vaccine as a Polio Pioneer. I attended the Warren Oaks School in Framingham MA. My older brother contracted polio a year before so I could understand why my parents wanted me to participate in the study. I was just glad the I received the real vaccine and not the placebo. I am surprised to see how many different schools participated from all over the country. It was a very interesting experience. -Linda

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I was a polio pioneer…do not remember a lot of it…I lived in Bridgeport Ct.. and would have been 7 years old in 1954. My two brothers and I were…my mother was an RN and signed us up It was Maplewood Elementary -Shirley 

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I was a Polio Pioneer in Roosevelt Elementary School in Ossining, NY. I don’t remember the card, but the pin was a cherished memory of which I was very proud. I retell the story often to my grandchildren, who live in a better world because of Polio Pioneers. -Zvi

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I was a Polio Pioneer. I kept the pin and card for decades and may still have them boxed up somewhere. I remember getting a series of shots at Mary Munford elementary school in Richmond, Virginia. i wasn’t crazy about getting shots but on one hand it just seemed part of getting vaccinations (I had received plenty of shots by the time I got the polio shots). On the other hand, it was presented to me, at least, that these shots had some larger importance outside of my personal safety. My father had a close friend with polio whom we visited monthly for years; he himself missed about fifteen months of high school due to either a mild case of polio or meningitis from another source. He had another friend who owned a lake that he developed as a recreational center; it closed when it was suspected as a source of polio. The man commited suicide. So, my parents were very supportive; I think my mother may have volunteered to help take care of the children. I vaguely remember a newspaper article and picture. The only mishap I remember (outside of crying kids) was having a needle stick in the bone of my arm during one of the followup shots. -Craig