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HIST 1700 TR
Ana de Freitas

Poliomyelitis also known as Infantile Paralysis was a fearful disease that killed
thousands during the mid-1900s.1 It is now uncommon and has been said to be nonexistent in
the United States since the 1990s. In 1952, polio was spreading, and it was spreading fast. At
the time, technology was not as advanced and we knew little about the cause of polio. Polio
mainly targeted young children, but it was also possible for adults to get the disease.2 It was
highly infectious and numbers of polio cases were increasing as time passed.3 It was a
tormenting disease, those who had it, were very sick. Some polio cases resulted in paralysis. This
virus affected American life, not only did people fear to catch the disease but those with the
disease had little hope. Mothers and families were very worried. Their own children were dying
and something had to be done. It is my belief that many efforts were made towards the research
and cure for the polio vaccine.
Polio attacks the Central Nervous System, its symptoms include fatigue, fever, muscle
weakness, and in acute forms, paralysis. Many children would catch a high fever, and not feel
well. Their muscles would become weak and they would feel very tired. Some could not walk
and lost complete function of their muscles. In many cases the diaphragm muscle loss was the
worst. Not being able to breathe was life-threatening. 4There was an invention called the Iron
Lung which was a huge machine, in which a person would lay inside and it would assist them to
breathe. Some people would remain in these machines temporarily but others spent their lives
laying there with a nurse assisting them on their side5.

Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 3:56.
Ibid. 5:18.
Charts and Graphs with figures on Polio cases in the United States, 1955.
Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 4:38.
Jane S. Smith, Patenting the Sun: Polio the Salk Vaccine, (New York: W. Morrow, 1990). Pg 39-41.

People did not have money to care for their children, all they could do was try to stay
away from everyone else. Pools were shut down, along with many other public buildings. Those
who were diagnosed with polio were ignored. They werent allowed to be around others, their
things were burned because people didnt know how it spread. People would move if they could
afford to, so they would be far away from crowded cities.6 It affected peoples lives in drastic
In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with polio. Since he was a political
figure and had a high degree of power, he could do something, and he did. He bought a resort
with warm springs that was said to have healing powers. It was later called the Georgia Warm
Springs Foundation which was offered to those affected with polio. To keep the fight against
polio going, Roosevelt turned to his partner Basil O Connor. Basil O Connor was then head of
the new National Polio foundation. The number of cases of polio continued to rise in America
and more were dying. Polio patients depended on private funds like OConnors, not the
government.7 And he realized that it was not enough to help everyone. He then turned to the
public and was broadcasted on the radio. He stated, The only way to fight infantile paralysis is
with money and so Im asking you tonight to send a dime to President Roosevelt at the White
House.8There were also advertisements on the televisions about the fundraising. This campaign
was called The March of Dimes. 1.8 billion dollars was raised through this campaign. 9No
one is too poor to give a dime to help a kid walk again said David M. Oshinsky.10 It was a
success. The campaign continued with new messages stating that Polio could strike anyone at

Jane S. Smith, Patenting the Sun: Polio the Salk Vaccine, (New York: W. Morrow, 1990), Pg.34.
Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 8:21.
Ibid. 9:26. Quoted by Basil OConnor, recording.
Ibid. 10:51.
Ibid, Quoted by David M. Oshinksy.

any time11 so it became even more frightful to the American people. David M Oshinsky, a
Historian, mentions that Basil O Connor, thought the only way to raise money for Polio was to
scare the hell out of the American Public.12 And it worked well because more and more people
were donating to the cause. People were scared of getting the disease.
Larry Becker, a polio survivor, talks about the struggles he faced and still faces today. He
says, Its like every muscle in your body is extremely sore. Its very sensitive to the touch and
just aches. I lost not only my leg muscles, but I lost also neck muscles, and most importantly the
diaphragm. My parents were in an out of the room there wasnt much hope that I was gonna
survive.13 Just listening to the effects sounds painful. In the video he has to take breaks because
he needs air. Its very heart breaking. It was very stressful for parents, knowing that their
children were unable to breathe. A lot of people had their lives taken from them because of this
horrendous disease, including children. These parents were eager to get help from hospitals and
other organizations. They were desperate for treatment and anxious for a cure.
Theres this video of this women in the Iron Lung and she refers to it as a prison. a
friendly prison.14Her name is not mentioned but she is paralyzed from the neck down and is
shown through a mirror that hung above the iron lung. As more and more people got polio, and
the fear of getting polio was rising, there was a huge push towards the research for a cure.
Saul Morse, a women who had the paralytic form of polio, tells about her memories as a
child. She was 21 months when diagnosed with Polio. She states,


Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 15:45.
Ibid. Quoted by David M Oschinsky, 17:47.
Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009.13:40 14:42.
Ibid. 34:55 35:01.

I was in an iron lung for about six weeks and my parents were told not to expect me to
survive. I was kept from family and sent to a hospital for rehabilitation. That took almost
two years. During this time I saw my parents and grandparents on weekends but was not
allowed to see my older brother for extended periods.15
Only seeing your parents twice a week as a child sounds like such a small amount of time to be
with your loved ones. How scary must it have been to barely be able to be around people. To
grow up with your brother by your side and then see him rarely. To be away from the outside
world. To be 21 months and lay in a metal tube for a month and a half. It sounds awful and many
of those who had polio experienced the effects of isolation.
Millions of people from all over the country were donating dimes to help, it became a
national effort. The money raised was headed for research of the polio cure. For decades
scientists were working to find the cure. And in 1949, O Connor declared that A miracle was in
sight.16 He had met a man named Jonas Salk who was a researcher at Pittsburgh
University.17During the time Salk had created a vaccine and was eager to begin human trials.
OConnor wanted things done quickly so he was not hesitant and human trials began soon after.
In 1952, Salk injected 43 children with the vaccine. 18A newspaper was published in the Journal
American Newspaper stating big and bold, Salk Vaccine Works!
During the time, there were also other researchers who thought that the vaccine was not
safe to test on humans. The after-effects of the vaccine were not known, which worried many
scientists.19 In a supplemental report to the President by the Secretary of Health, Education, and
Welfare of the Salk vaccine, it states, ..the Department has been concerned with two basic


Saul Morse, Occupational Therapy,1952.

Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 20:18.
Ibid. 29:39 - 30:17
Ibid. 37:01.

problems: (1) the safety of the vaccine, and (2) the voluntary control plan20 The report talks
about how the vaccine is not safe and should be tested and checked thoroughly. But this
document proves that even though the Health Department is telling the President of the United
States that the vaccine is not 100 percent safe, they dont care. They still gave thousands of
school children this vaccine. They wanted it, and they wanted it fast. Later in this report it is also
says, On June 10, the Public Health Service technical report on Salk poliomyelitis vaccine,
primarily dealing with questions of safety, was made public. In this statement, they are saying,
that the dangers of the vaccine are known. The public knows that the vaccine may not work, it
may harm their children. But thousands upon thousands of mothers took their kids voluntarily to
get the vaccine. People were taking drastic measures.
Not only did the public want the vaccine but O Connor and other officials knew that
speed was essential. Salk wanted to Leap not crawl.21 This was a heavily financed project.
When the vaccines were distributed, and tested, none of the children got polio.22 People had put
up with polio for a really long time, and they wanted it to be over. They desired the vaccine.
In 1954, the March of Dimes began the field trials on thousands of school children. No
one knew how well the vaccine worked but they didnt care, they wanted to be polio free and
safe. After a year, the results showed to be safe. The vaccine worked23.
In 1955 the Pittsburgh Press had an article stating, Polio Conquered24 and in another
Newspaper by the Minneapolis Star declared Salk Polio Vaccine Works!25 People were happy.


Supplemental Report to the President by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare on the distribution of
the polio vaccine, 1955.
Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 27:00 - 28:40.
Ibid. 30:17.
Ibid. 41:42.
Polio Conquered, Pittsburgh Press, 1955.

Children were returning to schools, Parents were weeping.26 It was a special moment in history.
It truly was a group effort.27 The public and the officials both contributed to the want and need of
the polio vaccine.
After so much time fighting, the fear of polio was diminishing. Those who had polio
were excited to hear about the victory. And most of all, the parents of millions of children could
finally feel comfort in their country, their home.


Salk Polio Vaccine Works!, The Minneapolis Star.

Sarah Colt, The Polio Crusade, The American Experience, 2009. 41:53
Jane S. Smith, Patenting the Sun: Polio the Salk Vaccine, (New York: W. Morrow, 1990), pg 63-64.

Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine. New York: W. Morrow, 1990.
Eisenhower Presidential Library. Supplemental report to the President by the Secretary of
Health, Education and Welfare on the Distribution of the polio vaccine, July 13,
1955,DDEs Records as President, Official File, Box 511, 117-I-1 Salk Polio Vaccine
(7). Date accessed: October 7,2014.
Colt, Sarah. The Polio Crusade. The American Experience :, 2009. Film.
Oshinsky, David M. Quoted in: The Polio Crusade, The American Experience :, 2009. Film.
Becker, Larry. Quoted in: The Polio Crusade, The American Experience:, 2009. Film.
Morse, Saul. Occupational Therapy. Ohio, 1952. Journal.
Journal American. This Day in History: Apr 26, 1954: Polio Vaccine Trials Begin. Accessed
November 20, 2014.
Salk Polio Vaccine Works. The Minneapolis Star. Newspaper.
Polio Conquered!. Pittsburgh Press. 1955. Newspaper.
Eisenhower Presidential Library. Charts and graphs with figures on polio cases in the United
States,Oveta Culp Hobby Papers, Box 23, Salk Vaccine-April and May 1955. Date

accessed October 7, 2014.