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.
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.
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.