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...
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 Nix, who readily confesses to commiting 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 used to fussy schoolchildren as he marched toward the achievement soon to bring him global fame: the polio vaccine.
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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, on April 12, 1955, church bells rang, fire-engine sirens blared and parents wept. The joy 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.”
A terrible toll
Today, polio is eradicated from the U.S. 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.
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 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. Albert Sabin and Hilary Koprowski banked on an “attenuated” vaccine that relied on a weakened but still-living virus to stimulate antibodies and provide 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 made 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.
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 CEO 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.”
Ronna Casar Harris, now an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, was among the first-graders who bared their arms for the nurse who visited the James E. Rogers School in Pittsburgh.
Harris recalls firm instruction from her teacher, Mrs. Cutler: “No one was allowed to look at their arms. And no one was allowed to cry. We were not babies; we were first-graders. … When everyone was done, she said, ‘You may take off the cotton ball.’ She passed along the trash can.”
Israel Pickholtz, who now lives in Israel, was a first-grader when he joined his Pittsburgh classmates in a line along a wall at the Dilworth School gym.
“At the end of the line was this table, with a nurse, with a shot, and vials of blood,” said Pickholtz, 57. “They were on a clothesline or something. They were in the air. You could see the blood. The (children) in front were hysterical. And the hysterics were contagious.”
Many remember the sense of dread that arrived each summer, the peak season for polio. When children ran fevers, parents struggled to control their panic.
Barbara Albert, 57, said her parents “tricked” their children into going to the Watson home; they were told to pile into the car for a trip to “gramma’s” house. She remembers the sounds of children crying and the sight of Salk in his doctor’s coat. “My parents would tell us to be brave and don’t cry like the other kids,” Albert said. “For some reason it was important to show them we wouldn’t cry. I tried real hard to stand the pain. My mom remembers my sister getting sick to her stomach once. It could have been my brother. But I remember it being me.”
Cinnamon Rinzler, 60, a physician assistant in Woodstock, N.Y., said getting blood from her arm proved difficult until Salk himself stepped in: “It wasn’t like he comforted me, but he was very calming. He obviously knew what he was doing. He exuded that. So I stopped crying.”
A solemn purpose
For Janet Moore, 61, of Earlysville, Va., participating in the vaccine tests had solemn implications. Her big sister, Nancy, had died of polio. An iron lung had not saved her. Moore was 6 when it happened. She recalls little except being shielded from the tragedy.
“I don’t have memories of her death,” she said. “I have memories of being sad and lonely.”
Still vibrant in her memory, though, are images from Salk’s tests: the lines of empty chairs, reserved for arriving youngsters; the squeals of children; and the taste of blended juices — intended to soothe the young medical pioneers.
“I do remember how important it was to be going there, and how proud I was, however vaguely I understood,” Moore said. “My friends remember it with dread. But I don’t.”
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.
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.”