Lessons From Polio in the Age of COVID

Vintage March of Dimes Poster and illustration of child getting a shot

The coronavirus is still on the march.

Somehow amidst all the protests filled with wall to wall people, that concern has receded in folks consciousness.

We are still far from a vaccine, the only thing that will be a game changer.

Until a vaccine we are all vulnerable to this virulent virus.

A Miracle Vaccine

I would take for granted one of the most remarkable developments in modern history.

The polio vaccine.

Approved in April 1955, a mere two weeks after I was born the polio vaccine was nothing short of a modern wonder. For the first half of the century, polio was the most notorious and feared disease until AIDS appeared. And for good reason. Polio hit without warning. There was no way of telling who would get it and who would be spared.

As a child, I was constantly reminded that mine was a charmed existence, protected from deadly contagious diseases that had previously wiped out families and communities forever. And not just in the Dark Ages but in my own mother’s lifetime. Vaccinations were not only vigorously embraced but each new vaccine was viewed as a victory for mankind.

Receiving my first set of vaccinations as a baby in 1955, I felt invincible. The injections may not have rendered me faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive but with my newly acquired powers that went far beyond those of third world tots, I could now stand down whooping-cough, diphtheria and laugh polio in the face.

Ravages of Polio

 polio precautions poster Polio Precautions Poster


Summer was open season for polio. Before 1955, there would be no youngsters swimming in public pools since most municipal pools were closed for fear of polio.

Like clockwork every summer, newspapers, with headlines screaming “Polio panic,” would appear with frightening photos of jammed packed polio wards and deserted beaches. News stories about containment competed for space, whether it was iron lungs or the iron curtain.

No disease struck the same terror as polio.

Fueled by feelings of helplessness, my mother like other nervous mothers zealously checked and rechecked my brother’s every symptom; a sore throat, a fever, the chills, or even an aching limb, could all point to something ominous.

Vintage polio Precautions poster

The rules were written in stone: Keep kids away from new groups of people. Don’t drink from the drinking fountain in the playground if you’re thirsty. Don’t put any foreign object in your mouth; Don’t run around in the heat with a sore throat, and make sure house screens were tight against flies and mosquitoes. Those dirty flying pests were thought to be the carriers of the disease.

The images of little children enclosed in an iron lung would haunt frightened parents. Unable to breathe due to the virus paralyzing muscle groups in the chest, the iron lung, a tank respirator, maintained respiration and was a life saver

Losing Battle

vintage illustration child in wheelchair This particular disease targeted defenseless children


This particular disease targeted defenseless children. It didn’t matter how good you were, how clean, how rich or poor. Polio was the great American equalizer.

For nearly a decade into the buoyant postwar era polio remained a frightening disease to haunt our lives.

Iron lungs Polio ward 1950s Iron lungs in the emergency polio wards at Haynes Hospital in Boston 1955 Photo AP

Flush with the triumphant victory of winning a war on two sides of the globe, we were still fighting a major battle right here in our own country, and in a way unfamiliar to Americans.

We were losing.

At a time when our confidence in American know-how and scientific expertise was at an all-time high, polio seemed to mock our can-do optimism. It seemed impossible that in this modern age of penicillin that polio could still ravage our nation. Not in a country where Americans were not just clean but Clorox clean, where physicians worked twice as fast for faster relief and creative chemistry worked wonders killing germs on contact.

The triumph over any enemy was an American birthright, so with that same can-do spirit, the troops were rallied with their resonating war cry “Polio can be conquered.”

It was all-out war.

March of Dimes

Franklin Roosevelt founded the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis in 1938 to combat polio. The name March of Dimes was coined by comedian Eddie Cantor as a nod to the famous newsreels “The March of Time.” He urged the public to send dimes to the White House and thousands mailed cards and letters each containing a dime. A redesign of the dime was chosen in Roosevelt’s honor after his death. The Roosevelt dime issued in 1946 on would have been FDR’s 64 birthday.

My Mother was a veteran of that war and would play her part against polio, supporting the March of Dimes, the grassroots fundraising campaign used by the National Foundation for Infantile paralysis.

In 1951 Mom had every reason to get involved in the campaign. Pregnant with my brother she was soon a first-time mother just as polio season hit.  As the front line defender of her family’s health, Mom became a foot soldier in the March of Dime’s “Mother’s March on Polio. ” Along with the millions of other concerned mothers across the country, Mom was on a mission, going block by block, house to house ringing doorbells for solicitations. People were urged to leave their porch lights on to show the volunteers they were welcome.


Mothers March on Polio Mothers March For Polio gather in kitchens before the march. (R) Modesto Tribune cartoon on Mothers March on Polio Night

For two hours each year on January 30th the birthday of the late President Franklin Roosevelt, these women formed the largest charitable army the country had ever known.  The annual “Mothers March For Polio” raised millions in dimes and dollars each year which was used for polio research and to aid communities suffering from a polio outbreak.

These female marchers once an indelible image of postwar America served as models for much later marches by mothers against nuclear testing and the environment

The women all carried the familiar March of Dimes Collection can decorated with the heartbreaking pictures of little girls with steel braces, These cans were ubiquitous in post-war America, appearing on every store counter from candy stores to libraries to corner grocer. Even taverns displayed the cans.

Their goal- to get a Vaccine.

Salk Vaccine Trials

Polio Pioneers

A nationwide trial of experimental vaccines using schoolchildren as guinea pigs would be unthinkable in the US today. But that is exactly what happened in 1954 when frantic parents looking for anything that could beat back the horror of polio- offered up 1.8 million children to serve as test subjects.

On April 26,1954 The Salk Vaccine field trials began.

For the first time, the double-blind method was used.  Neither doctor nor patient knew if the inoculation was the vaccine or a placebo

By 1954 the Salk vaccine trials rivaled the other big stories that spring – Brown versus Board of Education and The Army McCarthy hearings. In fact, more people knew about the  Polio Field trials than knew the full name of the president. The kids in the trial were called Polio Pioneers and a polio pioneer card was given out to each child along with a piece of candy when they participated in the first national trial tests of a trial vaccine.

NY Times April 1955 Salk Vaccine Is Successful

The trial was the largest peacetime mobilization of volunteers in American history. With no money from federal grants or pharmaceuticals,  financing came from private donations.

In April 1955, my parents, along with millions of others had cause for celebration – the polio vaccine was approved! Jonas Salk using March of Dime donations had successfully developed a vaccine to prevent polio


Victory for a Vaccine

picture Dave garrowy host of Today; vintage illustrationcrippled boy walking The host of NBC’s Today Show Dave Garroway announces the polio vaccine works.

A very relieved Mom, along with most Americans of that age who were frantic to protect their children, would remember exactly where she was when she heard the groundbreaking news.

Early in the morning on April 12, 1955, with the dishes washed, laundry folded, baby bottles being sterilized in the electric bottle sterilizer awaiting refill of formula, Mom could sit back, relax and give me my mid-morning feeding.

As she warmed up the bottle, she warmed up the TV. With the skill of a safecracker, she delicately adjusted the large knobs on the mammoth mahogany encased set. Shaking the baby bottle, the milk felt pleasantly warm on Mom’s wrist and I drank it in satisfaction.

She settled in with a soothing cigarette in one hand my bottle in the other just as the easy-going voice of Dave Garroway host of NBC’s Today Show could be heard.

“And how are you about the world today? he would begin, the relaxing conversational tone making Mom feel as if she were sitting in the studio with him.

“Let’s see what kind of shape it’s in; there is a glimmer of hope”.

Of course, that was the understatement of the day when with his chimp sidekick Fred Muggs at his side, the scholarly looking Garroway jubilantly announced: “The Vaccine Works. It is safe, effective and potent.”

Mom would recall that the once in a lifetime excitement felt as if it were like another V-J Day, the end of a war. That it was announced on the ten-year anniversary of FDR’s death added to the poignancy.

The bespectacled Garroway’s trademark sign off of an upraised palm, uttering simply: “Peace” had never seemed more prescient.

It would, gratefully,  be a terror I would never know.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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  1. Chris Chilson

    Sadly, successful virus vaccines are very rare and infrequent. From the 1918 Spanish Flu to modern viruses such as SARS, MERV, other Carvoviruses or HIV, there remains no vaccine, after decades of expensive research that has failed to produce positive results.
    The same will be true of COVID-19. Like a cure for Cancer, it won’t happen in our lifetimes.
    Conduct yourselves accordingly.



    • Fauci commented recently he was doubtful that a vaccine will be effective and is concerned that the vaccine will be produced before confirmation of its effectivness. That is very worrisome.


  2. Thanks for this, Sally. I got a Salk vaccine in 1954; I was six. I didn’t know it was part of a study. I also remember Tyne tests for TB in high school and the Sabin oral vaccine (on a sugar cube) in fifth grade. Would the anti-vaccinators understand more of this history.


  3. If you got it in 1954 then you were part of the test. You would have been a Polio Pioneer kid. Kudos to you! I remember the sugar cube too, it had a purplish stain on it. I got that in second grade.


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