America’s top scientists were scrambling to cure a child-killing epidemic when a 7-year-old boy, sore from yet another blood test, struck back. When Dr. Jonas Salk walked past, the boy tripped him. “He went down,” said businessman David M. Nix, who readily confesses to committing the crime in an auditorium near Pittsburgh a half-century ago. “But he caught himself.” The transgression was quickly forgotten by Salk, who had grown accustomed to fussy schoolchildren as he marched toward the achievement soon to bring him global fame: the polio vaccine. But memories surrounding that famous doctor — reassuring in white coat and glasses, an expert in the tender art of drawing blood from children — remain vivid among many who recall the final countdown. When Salk’s vaccine was announced to the world 50 years ago today, on April 12, 1955, church bells rang, fire engine sirens blared and parents wept. In the Inland Northwest, thousands of children lined up for the vaccine. Nearly 60,000 shots were administered in Spokane between 1955 and 1957, according to newspaper reports from the time. At times, children and parents flooded into the Spokane Coliseum for the shots.
The joy surrounding the announcement of the vaccine was especially profound around Pittsburgh, where hundreds of families had surrendered their children for Salk’s earliest tests.
“I remember how tight my mom held me,” said Washington, D.C., radio news writer Mike Silverstein, 56, who was sipping tomato soup when the announcement came on TV. “This was the generation that had lived through the Depression and won the Second World War. They were determined to win this battle. And they were going to do it for their kids.”
Today, polio is eradicated from the United States and survives in only a handful of underdeveloped nations. A virus that enters the mouth and replicates in the digestive tract, it sometimes assaults the nervous system and leads to paralysis and death. Many survivors are left with withered limbs.
“Polio is a very visual disease,” said David M. Oshinsky, a University of Texas at Austin history professor and author of “Polio: An American Story.”
“You go into a restaurant, you don’t know who has cancer or heart disease. But with polio, it’s iron lungs and crutches and leg braces. It’s the closing of swimming pools and movie theaters, and box scores in newspapers about (how many people) are getting it.”
Even when polio peaked in the 1940s and ‘50s, far more children were killed by cancer or accidents. But the illness evolved into a national obsession, due largely to its mysterious preference for children and its graphic toll. TV reports showed chilling images of sick youngsters stuck inside airtight iron lungs, the coffinlike containers used to aid breathing. Many grade-school classrooms turned quiet when a schoolmate’s chair went empty or a sick student returned to school disabled for life.
“They’d be walking down the hall, and you’d hear this clumping sound from these heavy leather and metal braces,” recalls Nix. “It was a very sad time.”
Salk, initially a University of Michigan flu researcher, opened his polio lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. He was among three U.S. researchers competing to invent a vaccine.
The other scientists, Albert Sabin and Hilary Koprowski, banked on an “attenuated” vaccine that relied on a weakened but still-living virus to stimulate antibodies and provide disease immunity.
In Salk’s vaccine, the virus was dead. Such a vaccine, he believed, could also stimulate antibodies (as his flu vaccine had done), and could be manufactured faster and without a risk of natural infection.
Salk’s tactic was ultimately affirmed by a test on 1.8 million schoolchildren in 44 states. That effort, led by Thomas Francis, Salk’s mentor in Michigan, would amount to medicine’s largest-ever controlled trial.
“It was unbelievable, and you will never see it again,” said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “That trial cost about $7.5 million, which would be about $200 million today.”
But before that nationwide trial began, Salk tried his experimental vaccine in Western Pennsylvania. Among the first subjects were kids living at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children in Leetsdale.
Salk initially chose those children because he sought confirmation that his shot would boost immunity in children already stricken by polio. Then he began testing healthy kids, either brought to Watson or enrolled in schools around Pittsburgh.
The work at Watson is remembered vividly by Nix, 59, of Akron, Ohio, and his older brother, Robert Nix Jr., 62, an Episcopal priest in Glyndon, Md. Their father, a pediatrician in Sewickley, Pa., signed up 474 kids – including his two sons – for Salk’s vaccine and subsequent blood tests.
The auditorium at Watson smelled like rubbing alcohol and the juice handed out after tests, said David Nix, now chief executive officer of a Valley City, Ohio, steel company. Robert Nix remembers kids his age trapped in iron lungs.
“They looked like the tin man to me,” Robert Nix said. “They looked big to me. And their heads stuck out. There was a starkness there. You lined up; you waited for your name to be called. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. And it wasn’t a place for healthy young kids.”
The Salk success story carries a tragic footnote. In 1955, as manufacturing companies rushed to distribute the vaccine, an error resulted in 125,000 children being inoculated with live virus. About 70,000 got sick, 200 were severely paralyzed, and 10 died.
Like many places around the country, Spokane put a halt to its immunization program on news of the bad vaccine. All of the city’s vaccine supply was shipped back to the state Department of Health.
The situation created “near mass hysteria” among parents, Spokane Health Officer Dr. Hampton Trayner told the newspaper.
It wasn’t until the following spring that youngsters in the Inland Northwest started receiving the vaccine again.
The California company blamed for most of the bad vaccines, Cutter Laboratories, was sued and forced to pay about $3 million, said Offit, author of an upcoming book, “The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis.”
“Today, they would be publicly slaughtered,” Offit said. “But those were different times.”
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