The year was 1954 and probably the most feared disease by most parents in Easton was infantile paralysis, more commonly known as polio. The disease had reached epidemic proportions in 1952 with a record 57,879 cases reported that resulted in 3,145 deaths. Nationwide, parents were frantic. In what virtually everyone in today’s world would consider unthinkable, parents desperate to save their children from the horrors of this deadly and incredibly debilitating disease offered up a total of 1.8 million of their offspring to serve as test subjects for a vaccine that promised to all but eradicate the illness. These children were boldly dubbed the Polio Pioneers.
The risk of contracting polio was highest during the summer, so getting the first children inoculated by the late spring of 1954 was imperative if there was to be any hope of proving the new vaccine effective enough to make it available nationwide by the following year. The Salk polio vaccine trials became the largest mobilization of volunteers in American peacetime history. Over 325,000 doctors, nurses, educators and ordinary citizens pitched in with the only funding coming from $7.5 million in donations given to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. A good deal of those donations came from the annual Mother’s March that in later years would become known as the March of Dimes. No government monies, no big pharmaceutical companies; just donations from ordinary Americans united in their efforts to bring the horrors of polio to an end.
The testing groups were randomly divided into two groups. In one group, half of the children would simply be observed for signs of the disease, while the other half would receive the vaccine. In the second group, half would be inoculated with the new vaccine, while the other half received a placebo. The tests were “blind” so that neither the health practitioners, nor the patients, knew who received the vaccine and who didn’t. In 1954, there were no computers available for recording the inoculations, so it was all done by hand, and all by volunteers. In all, some 653,000 children received a total of three injections each, with 443,000 of them receiving the actual polio vaccine and the other 210,000 receiving the placebo.
The late summer and the entire autumn of 1954 were spent taking blood samples from over 40,000 of the vaccine’s recipients and waiting to judge the rate of success of the new drug. The final results were astounding, the Salk vaccine proved to be 80 to 90 percent effective in preventing polio! In early 1955, the New York Times ran with the headline, “SALK POLIO VACCINE PROVES SUCCESS; MILLIONS WILL BE IMMUNIZED SOON; CITY SCHOOLS BEGIN SHOTS APRIL 25.”
I was one of the first ordinary students in the spring of 1955 to receive the vaccine. We stood in line while the school nurse checked off our names and someone in a white lab coat rubbed the spot with alcohol where the injection would be administered, before then stabbing us with a needle full of medicine that very likely spared at least some us the pain and suffering of polio, a disease that within ten years of Jonas Salk’s amazing work would be virtually wiped out. In 1955, due in large part to the Salk vaccine, polio cases in the United States dropped to 13,850 and deaths to 1,043; a 66% decline in mortalities in just 24 months. As I look back at the remarkable events of 1954, I can only offer my sincerest thanks to those who became known as the Polio Pioneers.
A very special thanks goes out to Margaret Greiser Perry, a Polio Pioneer who received her card during that crucial time of testing at the Samuel Staples School, and who has very graciously shared it with the Historical Society of Easton. It’s folks like Meg who saved many others, faster than would ever be possible in today’s world!