Big Birds, Big Bees, and Big Vaccines

Thanks to an oversize cartoon bee, everyone was buzzing about a new vaccine in the early 1960s.

The Sabine type II oral polio vaccine helped a lot of children in 1962 in part due to the diligence of a happy bumblebee named Wellbee. Created by the CDC, the winged insect was enlisted by our government to help spread the word about this life-saving wonder and encourage all of Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews to get the new type of polio vaccine.

A busy bee he hawked the vaccine plenty. There was an entire media blitz with radio spots, TV commercials, in-person appearances, with his likeness on brochures, and posters plastered on school walls, and local shops.

Yet not one member of Congress was bugged by this bee, never accusing this cartoon character of pollinating government propaganda in order to brainwash innocent children.

Not like today’s whack-a-doodle conservatives who got their feathers ruffled when Sesame Street’s Big Bird revealed he received his COVID Vaccine. Leading the emotional charge to “Save the children from this yellow peril!”  was Texas’s own cartoon character Senator Ted  Cruz.

That in a nutshell is the difference between the birds and the bees. The reasonable reception to a life-saving vaccine for children in the midst of a deadly pandemic and the fear-based, doubting, ignorant one.

Polio

March of Dimes Polio and Innoculation

Mid-century parents were not only not skeptical but were overjoyed at the prospect of the Sabin oral vaccine.

No disease struck the same terror as polio.

And for good reason- polio hit without warning. It didn’t matter how good you were, how clean or how rich or poor, polio was the great American equalizer. Polio was an epidemic targeting children and nearly every mother in the nation was concerned that her child would become ill with the virus.

I would take for granted one of the most remarkable developments in modern history. The Salk polio vaccine, approved on April 14, 1955, only a mere two weeks after I was born was nothing short of a modern miracle.

The mass inoculation of millions of American children against polio in 1955, like the vaccinations of millions of American adults against COVID-19 in 2021, was a triumph of science. But unlike today the polio vaccine had overwhelming public acceptance. Americans had an especially deep respect for science then and couldn’t get inoculated quick enough.

Though Jonas Salk’s vaccine using a killed virus was groundbreaking, it would be replaced by Albert Sabin’s live polio vaccine which became the vaccine of choice by 1962 when it became available to the public. A mass immunization program was set up and Sundays were designated as Sabin Sundays. Public schools became immunization sites with volunteer nurses handing out the doses that were lined up on trays.

Millions of kids lined up in school auditoriums to receive this life-saving drug. I was one of them.

Sabin Oral Polio Vaccine

It was nearly 60 years ago this month that I received my own Sabin vaccine booster in a small white paper cup, ingesting a sugar cube with a pinkish stain in the center. This innocent-looking sugar cube would definitively protect me from that deadly disease that only a decade before had been the scrouge of childhood. By 1962, all the kids I knew had gotten the recommended number of injections of the Salk vaccine and were advised to get this booster.

Polio Vaccine

Poster Featuring Wellbee. In the early 1960s, there was a lot of buzz when it came to the Sabine oral Polio Vaccine

In the months leading up to that November Sunday, the talk about the Sabin vaccine was hard to miss because the government did a big push to publicize the availability of the new oral vaccine.

I was visually reminded daily by that cute cartoon character named Wellbee who shared the classroom bulletin board space with cut-outs of Halloween witches, fall leaves and Thanksgiving turkeys. Accustomed to getting behavioral advice from oversize bees like Mr. Do Bee on Romper Room, Wellbee resonated with kids as the spokesman for health.

A Spoon Ful Of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

 

The best part of all about this vaccine was how it was supplied. No injection needed!

For a generation raised on Sugar Frosted Flakes, Ring Dings, and Kool-Aid , what better delivery system than to get your medicine in a sugar cube. It was the new and improved modern way! The Salk vaccine suddenly seemed so darn old-fashioned with its painful syringe. Now in the fast-paced world of the 1960s, this was a whole new frontier. Sugar could fuel us to the moon thanks to Tang, and it would provide that final knock-out punch to polio.

Those same familiar Domino sugar cubes, the very ones my Nana Sadie used to sweeten her Lipton tea with, and sneakily pluck from a restaurant’s sugar bowl to squirrel away in her pocketbook for some future use, were now being called into service to provide the transportation system of this new oral vaccine.

A spoonful of sugar truly made the medicine go down. In fact, it was Sabin’s oral vaccine that inspired the classic 1964 Mary Poppins song.  The idea for the iconic tune “A Spoonful of Sugar” actually came from a conversation the songwriter Robert Sherman had with his young son about his positive polio vaccine experience.

A cartoon bee may have encouraged the public to receive the oral vaccine but a grateful public didn’t need any encouragement. When it came to vaccines, they knew how sweet it was.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2021. 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.

 

 

 

11 comments

  1. Jeff Tamarkin

    I love this blog entry. The history of the polio vaccine is so fascinating, and of course you are spot-on in noting that there was no political jousting over its merits: Everyone agreed that being vaccinated against polio was not only essential for the individual but for the world.

    Re: the sugar cube. As you undoubtedly know, when LSD started to escape from the clinical labs and make its way into the general population in the mid-’60s, the most popular means of delivery at first was…the sugar cube. An eye dropper and a cube and off you go to paradise. It wasn’t until later in the decade that it became more ubiquitous in pill form and later on paper. I believe that one of the main reasons young people found it so easy to take this mysterious and powerful drug, when so little was know about it, was because they thought nothing of popping a sugar cube into their mouths, with the promise of something beneficial to come–other than the sugar, that is.

    On Thu, Nov 11, 2021 at 8:00 AM Envisioning The American Dream wrote:

    > sallyedelstein posted: ” Thanks to an oversize cartoon bee, everyone was > buzzing about a new vaccine in the early 1960s. The Sabine type II oral > polio vaccine helped a lot of children in 1962 in part due to the diligence > of a happy bumblebee named Wellbee. Created by the C” >

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, we were on the same psychedelic wavelength about the sugar cube and LSD. I was going to add an ending about the sugar cube being the delivery system for acid in the 60s as a logical conclusion for the baby boomers, but decided it was another post. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Salk vaccine was given in three shots. The first one, I survived. The second one, I was apprehensive. The third one, I cried…and my mother bought me a toy to get me to stop! (I should have cried the first two time, I guess.) I definitely preferred the Sabin sugar cube dose, though I’m unaware of any reason we were required to take that one when we had the Salk vaccine earlier. Happily, I endure vaccines bravely now and accept the protection they give as reward enough for not crying. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I have had 2 COVID vaccines and the booster, if they said in a year we needed another booster, I wouldn’t hesitate. As long as it takes to feel protected.

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  4. Well-done as always, Sally! The lunacy going on today needs to be continuously called out. The politicization of the COVID vaccine is shameful and has cost so many lives and had such a negative effect on the lives of us all. People need to remember how vaccines have saved so many lives over the years, and the gratitude and relief they brought.

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    • Thanks, Nancy. The politicization of COVID is unfathomable, and enraging. The tremendous fears that surrounded polio were equal to the gratitude and relief that were felt when a vaccine was introduced. The fact is that there was an incident of early batches of the vaccine that had defective doses from Cutter labs in Ca. that killed 10 children and infected tens of thousands. Extensive public health messaging had to overcome this, but a frightened public was reassured. I cant imagine if that had happened now.

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  5. Sally, truth be told, every medication or vaccine has an error rate where some get sick and very few may die. Just read the side effects on any medication. Not to belittle any death, but the error rate on the vaccines is miniscule in the big scheme of things. The numbers presented seem large, until you bring in the denominator with the billions of doses. Then, they become less than 1%.

    To see folks like the guy to the left of Big Bird in the picture above give people medical advice is inappropriate. Doctors have a mantra of do no harm. The senator does not have such an oath. To be frank, he seems to be forgetting the oath he did take.

    Truth be told, the former president missed a golden opportunity to lead. The ball was on the tee and he whiffed. Yes, he did do some good things, but he put more Americans, even his most ardent followers, in danger with his Democrat hoax BS and naysaying and other inane comments. Even today, his sycophants are rationalizing his positions or trying to win politically with arguing against mandates.

    750,000 Americans have died. Let’s never forget that. If Big Bird will help get folks vaccinated, that is great. I just feel the guy on the left is more interested in optics than helping people. By the way, that is not a new thing for him to do. That is what this independent voter thinks. Keith

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    • Ted Cruz is not even worthy of being uttered in the same sentence as Big Bird who has done so much good for children over the years. Cruz is a creep.

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      • Sally, I read many years ago that said Mr. Cruz was one of the least favorite senators in a poll of both parties. The reason cited is his tendency to grandstand and not work with others. My greatest frustration with said senator is he singlehandedly almost called the US to default on its debts around 2014-ish, coming within 24 hours of a deadline. Ten female senators from both parties told the men and Cruz to get out of the pool, and solved the problem before we defaulted. Our allies and trading partners were begging us not to default as what that would do to the world economy. Cruz, who was so concerned about the debt ceiling, would go on to vote for a tax cut for rich people and corporations that increased the debt by $1.6 trillion. The word you are searching for is hypocrisy. Keith

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