American Experience


The Polio Crusade

In the summer of 1950 Wytheville, VA realized the nation's worst medical fears. An outbreak of Infantile Paralysis, commonly known as Polio, swept through a small town of 5,500 in which 40 percent of residents had not yet reached their eighteenth birthday. Highly contagious, just in time for summer vacation, the devastating neurodegenerative disease had chosen its next target.

AIRED: March 31, 2020 | 0:52:10

(children laughing and chattering)

NARRATOR: The summer of 1950 started like most summers

in the small town of Wytheville, Virginia.

School let out, the town pools opened,

and kids flocked to the soda fountain on Main Street.

Almost 40% of the town's 5,500 residents

were under the age of 18.

JOHN M. JOHNSON: Wytheville was

more or less a lazy-type, laid-back town.

Everyone knew everyone.

It got really hot in the summertime,

and we would go swimming.

We were happy-go-lucky kids.


ELEANOR SAGE:I had a pair of my grandfather's rubber boots on

and I was wading in the creek.

And when I went to get out,

I felt like something pulled in my leg.

I went home

and hadn't been home too long

till I started running a temperature

and was real nauseous, and just kept going higher and higher.

BETTY COOK BROWN: I was outside playing.

I just didn't feel right.

By the time I got inside the house to my mother,

I told her I was sick.

I had a headache.

I was so dizzy.

And after that, I just passed out.

ANNE B. CROCKETT-STARK: The doctor came to do a spinal tap on my brother,

and he screamed.

And my mother ran downstairs with a bed pillow,

went out in the backyard andcovered her head with a pillow,

and laid there and screamed.

EUGENE F. WARREN: We only had two ambulance services in Wytheville.

One would come into the clinic with a suspected case

while the other one would be coming out of the clinic

and leaving for either Roanoke or Richmond.

In, out; in, out; in, out; in, out.

Mr. Williams' tote board

was right across the street from where I worked,

and it was always visible,

and every once in a while,

we'd go to the front door and look out.

Every time another one came in with the diagnosis,

well, they changed the count.

CROCKETT-STARK: Daddy and Mama took everything Sonny owned--

all of his clothes, his bed, his chest of drawers,

and he had a fabulous comic book collection.

And they took everything out to the middle of the garden,

and they just made a pileand burned everything he owned.

They were told to do that so that we would not get it.

NARRATOR: Polio was hitting Wytheville hard--

harder that year than any place in the country.

WARREN:It became more and more evident

that we were really in trouble,

and without knowing what to do or how to stop it

or how to get away from it.

We were just stuck with it.

You just couldn't pick up everybody and leave,

and you couldn't set the whole town on fire.

So it was a... it was almost...

not hopeless, but it was getting pretty close that way.

NARRATOR: Since the turn of the 20th century,

polio, also known as infantile paralysis, had become

an increasingly menacing fact of American life.

Highly contagious, the polio virus

tended to strike during the summer.

SAMUEL L. KATZ: It was very reliable.

Come June, July,

you began to see cases of polio,

and they continued on through September.

NARRATOR: The symptoms ranged from a mild headache and nausea

to muscle weakness, paralysis, or death.

KATHRYN BLACK:One never knew how it would go.

Would it pass through the body

and the person would get up out of bed

a few days later, just fine?

Would there be one leg damaged?

Would both arms?

JULIUS YOUNGNER: The paralytic effects would last for life.

And you didn't have to look very far

to see people who had been crippled with polio,

and crippled in terrible ways.

NARRATOR: In 1921, the disease struckan especially prominent citizen

just as his political star was on the rise.

Polio usually targeted children,

but Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 39.

After contracting a sudden fever and chills,

he lost the use of both his legs.


an enormous landmark in the whole history of polio.

The fact that he came down with polio

changed the course of the disease in this country.

NARRATOR: Roosevelt worked to restore both his body and his career.

He bought a remote Georgia resort

whose spring-fed baths were reputed to have healing powers

and turned it into theGeorgia Warm Springs Foundation,

committed to rehabilitating polio patients

from around the country.

In 1928, a still-paralyzed but vital FDR fought his way back

onto the national political stage.

To keep the fight against polio alive,

Roosevelt turned tohis law partner, Basil O'Connor,

a man who knew little about polio,

but a great deal about power and persuasion.

"I was never a public do-gooder," O'Connor declared,

"and had no aspirations of that kind."

Short-tempered and relentless,he was a working-class Irishman

who had to dig and fight for everything he had achieved.

DAVID M. OSHINSKY: Basil O'Connor has no interest

in being the head of the Warm Springs Foundation.

But he is so loyal to Franklin Roosevelt,

and he really believes

the only way to ensure FDR's political career

is to take over this institutionthat is so close to FDR's heart.

NARRATOR: With Roosevelt now in the White House,

O'Connor worked tirelessly to keep the organization afloat.

America was experiencing the worst economic depression

in its history.

Charities' traditional source of funding,

donations from the rich, had completely dried up.

Worse still, the number of cases of polio continued to rise.

OSHINSKY:What made polio so questionable,

what made it so hard for people to get a grip on,

was that at the very time America was becoming

a cleaner, more antiseptic society,

the polio rates were going up dramatically.

NARRATOR:In time, scientists would unlock some of polio's mysteries.

They would learn the virus entered the body

through the mouth;

that it passed from person to person

through contaminated water, food, or physical contact.

They would come to understand that modern sanitation

actually helped explain the prevalence of the disease.

Infants in clean environments

were less likely to be exposed to the virus

and develop life-long immunity.

PAUL A. OFFIT: Before improvements in sanitation,

all children were born with antibodies against polio.

When we had improved sanitation,

children started to become exposed to polio

later and later in life,

at a time when those antibodies

they had received from theirmother had already disappeared.

And that's why you saw an emergence of the disease.

NARRATOR: In 1938, O'Connor didn't knowmuch about the science of polio.

What he did know was that polio patients depended

on private charities like his, not the government, for help.

Without a new way to raise money,

his foundation could offer little more than hope.

It was time, he decided, to try something bold.

MAN ON RADIO:The only way to fight infantile paralysis is with money.

And so I'm asking you tonight to send a dime

to President Roosevelt at the White House.

NARRATOR: Enlisting celebrities to the cause,

O'Connor made an unprecedented appeal

to the American public.

Judy, when I spend a dime on myself

for some little luxury like this,

I always think about those unfortunate kids,

how far just a dime will go toward helping.

Gee, Mickey,

we don't know howlucky we are

and how much we haveto be thankful for

with our healthand our happiness.

Judy, that's why...

NARRATOR: The campaign was dubbed the March of Dimes.

Can I put a dimein your envelope?

Oh, you know that you can.

And that's what every good American should do.

Join the March of Dimes.

Send yours to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

NARRATOR:O'Connor waited anxiously to see if his gamble would pay off.

The March of Dimes campaign exceeded all expectations,

raising $1.8 million,

a staggering sum.

OSHINSKY: What O'Connor realized was

that this was a fundraising gold mine.

This turns fundraising on its head.

You no longer want big donations from the few.

You want small donations from the millions.

No one is too poor to give a dime

to help a kid walk again.

NARRATOR: O'Connor pledged

to provide care for every polio patient in America.

(machine humming)

To pay for doctors, nurses,

and the most up-to-date rehabilitation.

He would even invest in scientific research

aimed at stopping polio forever.

OSHINSKY:Basil O'Connor was no scientist,

but he was a great administrator.

He knew how to organize, he knew how to centralize,

he knew how to focus.

NARRATOR: Every summer, more and more children were infected

with polio.

O'Connor understood that he was in a race against time.

(children laughing and chattering)

LARRY BECKER: I was very active and outgoing

and grew up in a time and a place

when kids had lots of independence

and minimal supervision.

Just a few inflexible rules, like "be home for dinner."

I was 13, and I was just starting to lean out

and get kind of fast on the tennis court,

and I was pretty happywith the way things were going.

NARRATOR: Larry Becker grew up in Hastings, Nebraska.

He was a Boy Scout, delivered newspapers,

and played trumpet in the school band.

BECKER: My legs gave out

as I was pedaling my ice cream cart home for lunch.

NARRATOR: Larry became delirious with fever

as the polio virus penetrated his central nervous system,

infecting and destroying the nerve fibers

that controlled his muscles.

BECKER: It's like every muscle in your body

is extremely sore.

It's 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.

I began to have trouble breathing.

And I remember the last straw for me

was when I lost the use of my biceps.

I was afraid of... not so much of pain,

but of loss of control.

My parents were in and out of the room.

They were being given very bad news.

There wasn't much hope that I was going to survive.

(film projector clicking)

FILM NARRATOR: You've never seen me,

but I'm sure you've seen my shadow.

I'm never invited,

but I've been an invisible guest

in practically every kind of home.

This is what I've been looking for.

NARRATOR: To keep up the fundraising momentum,

O'Connor shifted tactics.

FILM NARRATOR: As you probably know,

I'm very fond of children, especially little children.

I have no prejudices.

I'm quite impartial.

NARRATOR:The March of Dimes' new message was a frightening one:

polio could strike anyone, anytime.

YOUNGNER: You went to a movie

and there was a little short subject about polio.

Memorial Hospital, please.

Infantile paralysis.

(gasps) Hello...

YOUNGNER: They would pass a cup row by row,

something to put whatever change you had in it.

Polio was brought home every day

to families all over the United States.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR:In New York, the March of Dimes campaign

is inspired by Basil O'Connor,

Jimmy Durante, Larry and Barry Pellitteri.

During the past few years,

the polio epidemic has beenon the increase and continues...

MAN ON LOUDSPEAKER: Fight polio tonightwith your porch lights at 7:00.

NARRATOR: The campaign worked.

The March of Dimes grew to 3,000 local chapters,

creating a network that reached millions and raised millions--

by the late 1940s,

as much as $22 million per year.

But O'Connor's campaign told only part of the story.

While polio could be devastating,

the chances of contractingan acute case were quite small;

of being paralyzed, smaller still;

of dying from polio, extremely remote.

Many more Americans died from car accidents or tuberculosis.

OSHINSKY: What the March of Dimes did

was to turn an awful but relatively uncommon disease

into our national disease and our national crusade.

Basil O'Connor's feeling was:

We've got to raise money for this.

The best way you raise money

was basically to scare the hell out of the American public.

It's hard to imagine today, I think,

how pervasive the fear was

and how embedded in the American psyche.

NARRATOR: The fear overwhelmed common sense.

Every summer, in Wytheville

and hundreds of towns across the country,

people took extraordinary measures to avoid polio.

They even sprayed the pesticide DDT,

despite the fact scientists had proved

flies did not spread the virus.

WARREN: Not knowing which way to turn, what's causing it,

people looked for all sorts of places to put the blame.

Some of them were ludicrous and some of them weren't.

STARK:Daddy said people just rolled up their car windows

and put bandanas around their faces

and zoomed through our town.

We didn't go on Main Street.

We didn't go anywheres near town during the polio epidemic.

For the longest time, no one would bother to call, come,

or get anywhere near our house.

They were afraid.

They didn't want to catch polio.

They didn't want my mother and daddy

to come in some of the stores.

They just didn't want them around.

STARK: People did as little as possible, isolated themselves,

and just prayed they wouldn't get it.

NARRATOR: In 1949, O'Connor took the campaign against polio

to a new level.

For more than a decade,

scientists funded by the March of Dimes

had focused on developing

the only viable solution to stop polio-- a vaccine.

Now, O'Connor declared,

the long-awaited miracle was "in sight."

His message raised hopes, and dimes, from an anxious public.

But within the scientific community,

there was a very different reaction.

A vaccine, most researchers believed,

was still years away,

if it worked at all.

(bicycle bell chimes)

BLACK:We lived in this little housing development in Phoenix.

It was young families everywhere,

and the population was just booming.

Couples just like my family-- father back from the war,

mother had had a careerand let it go to have children.

I was four years old, my brother was six, my parents were 28.

Life was pretty simple, pretty happy.

And then one day,

my mother came down with a backache.

And the doctor examined her,

and my father remembers the doctor saying,

"I think she has polio, but don't worry.

"It doesn't look like a serious case.

"But we have to put her in the contagious ward,

where she'll be isolated."

And things only got much, much worse from there.

She survived that night.

But she was paralyzed from the neck down.

I have no memory of her going away.

She disappeared overnight.

We went to bed one night andour mother was in the next room.

We woke up the next morning and she was gone.

(ship's horn blares)

NARRATOR: In 1951, two years after his promise

of an imminent polio vaccine, O'Connor had little to show.

(ship's horn blaring)

Then, in September,

traveling home from a conference in Europe,

he met a scientist as driven and impatient as O'Connor himself.

Jonas Salk was a 36-year-old researcher

at the University of Pittsburgh.

YOUNGNER: He was somebody who had great confidence in himself.

"Ambitious" is too mild a word.

He was super-ambitious.

JOHN TROAN: He was very aggressive on what he was doing.

When I first met him, he looked very intense

and he remained that way.

I mean, never changed.

Real intensive personality.

NARRATOR: O'Connor and Salk hit it off right away.

PETER L. SALK:Their personalities just meshed.

Both shared big dreams, they shared big goals,

and they saw in each other someone who was complementary.

NARRATOR:Salk's big goals included plans

for an unorthodox polio vaccine.

Up until now, leading-edge polio researchers had focused

on making a vaccine from a live virus,

like the vaccines for yellow fever and smallpox--

a complex and time-consuming process.

YOUNGNER: Live virus vaccines were

the gold standard of virus vaccine.

The whole scientific community of experts

said that the only vaccine that would work for polio

would be a live vaccine.

NARRATOR: Jonas Salk disagreed.

His experience developing a flu vaccine told him

that a killed virus vaccine

was both possible and faster to produce.

OSHINSKY: Salk had been trained

to believe with influenza and other viruses

that if you took the virus

and you killed it

and injected it into someone's arm,

you could trick the body's immune system

into believing that an invader had come,

and the body would produce

strong and lasting antibody protection.

NARRATOR: Proponents of the live virus vaccine

dismissed Salk's ideas

as ill-conceived scientific heresy...

Most notably, Albert Sabin.

KATZ: Dr. Sabin had already established a reputation

as a sound and imaginative, innovative investigator.

He was a little bit bombastic.

He was a little bit intolerant of other people's ideas.

He was always convinced that his own were correct

and most of the time he was right.

OSHINSKY: Albert Sabin had been working for

a number of years on his live virus vaccine.

Sabin believed that his vaccine was the perfect polio vaccine.

He also knew that it would take longer to develop,

and the constant conflict he had with Basil O'Connor

was over time.

"I need the time to perfect my vaccine."

Basil O'Connor wanted everything done now.

Albert Sabin simply believed

that science went by its own clock

and that the March of Dimes should wait

until his vaccine was ready.

NARRATOR: Salk was a mere "kitchen chemist,"

Sabin would say,

whose hasty work posed alurking danger to human health.

But Basil O'Connor didn't listen.

Salk's lab would become

a leading recipient of March of Dimes support.

OSHINSKY: What made Basil O'Connor

so strong about Jonas Salk

was that O'Connor finallybelieved he had met a scientist

who understood that kids were dying every day

and that speed was important.

YOUNGNER: Jonas was swimming against the current.

He was a young whippersnapper who came out of nowhere

and suddenly is taking on this responsibility,

and not only that, but getting the support

of Basil O'Connor,

because Jonas convinced Basil O'Connor

that we were going to do it.

NARRATOR: At his lab at the University of Pittsburgh,

Salk's race to find a polio vaccine took off.

KATZ: Dr. Salk's laboratory was like a factory

in that he had a large number of people.

They were all doing what he dictated they do.

In contrast, many laboratories were

more interested in expanding scientific perspective

and not necessarily as goal driven.

NARRATOR:The pressure he put on his staff was unrelenting.

"Salk thought big," one colleague observed.

"He wanted to leap, not crawl."

YOUNGNER: This was a heavily, heavily financed, expensive project.

We used thousands of monkeys.

We had resources beyond those

that any of the other researchers had.

OSHINSKY:He almost immediately could see

that his killed virus vaccine, at least in animals,

was very, very successful.

His tests with monkeys were extraordinary.

They had high antibody levels.

None of them seemed to get polio.

He knew he was on the track of something very important.

NARRATOR: With the success of his trials on monkeys,

Salk pressed for the next necessary but risky step--

to test his vaccine in humans.

O'Connor eagerly agreed.

But Sabin issued a warning-- Salk was moving too quickly.

His plan posed a serious threat to innocent lives.

O'Connor ignored Sabin's objections.

Salk's human trials would proceed as planned.

On July 2, 1952, assisted by the staff

at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children,

Jonas Salk injected 43 children with his killed virus vaccine.

KATZ: The idea of going into institutions

where there were children who were damaged

by various diseases and using

or exploiting them as subjects for these studies

was not regarded in the same way it is today.

OSHINSKY: There was no real sense

of what we would call informed consent.

If you wanted to test, as Jonas Salk did,

you went to the director of an orphanage,

or what was called a home for the feeble-minded,

and you tested.

NARRATOR: A few weeks after the Watson tests,

Salk injected children

at the Polk State School forthe Retarded and Feeble-Minded.

Then he administered the vaccine to his family

and received a shot himself.

No one got polio.

Blood tests showed that like his lab monkeys,

his human subjects had elevated levels

of polio-fighting antibodies.

A vaccine, Salk believed, was within reach.

(typewriters clacking)

1952 saw the outbreak ofAmerica's worst polio epidemic.

More and more older children and adults

were contracting the disease.

The older you were, the greater the risk

of paralysis or death.

Hospital wards were crowded with machines

that helped paralyzed patients breathe.

They were called iron lungs.

My father came in

to explain to me that they wanted

to put me in the iron lung.

And simultaneously one was moved into my room.

It's a huge piece of equipment, and looked scary,

and I didn't know what it meant.

Your head is disconnected from your body.

You can't see your body.

And in my case, I couldn't move anything at first.

And I was very uncomfortable

because of the pain in my muscles.

You have to get used to the fact

that you don't control your respiration rate.

And when you're first put in--

at least it was the case for me--

since I was struggling so much to breathe,

I just relaxed right into it.

(machine expelling air)

BLACK:The development of the iron lung

was a great scientific advancement in medical care.

It saved plenty of lives.

It certainly saved my mother's life,

but it also was its own terrible existence.

My mother was flat on her back,

being breathed by a machine,

tended by people through little portholes

on the side of the machine,

seeing nothing of the world

except what she could seethrough a mirror above her face.

(machine expelling air, voices echoing in distance)

What happens to your mind day after day,

night after night?

(machine expelling air, voices echoing in distance)

NARRATOR: For most, the iron lung was

a temporary measure to help them survive

during themost acute phase of the disease.

For others, it was permanent.

Hello there,this is a wonderful day for me.

Five minutes out of my iron lung.

Five minutes out of my little prison...

my kind and friendly prison.

BECKER: The first time I got out of the iron lung,

I saw the doctor cry because of the difficulties

I was having on the bed.

That was a shock.

And that soon turned into a kind of...

uh, self-disgust, I think, or shame,

which I didn't articulate, but, um...

I just wanted to hide.

I was 13 years old-- I thought I was immortal.

I don't ever remember being afraid that I would die.

I was afraid I wouldn't get better.

NARRATOR: Surveys showed that apart from the atomic bomb,

Americans' greatest fear was polio.

BLACK: People had put up with polio for a really long time,

and they wanted it over.

They wanted it done with.

The American public wanted that vaccine.

(car horn honking)

NARRATOR: On November 16, 1953,

Basil O'Connor made a stunning announcement.

The March of Dimes would finance, plan, and coordinate

an unprecedented human experiment,

testing Salk's vaccine

on hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.

Reaction from within the scientific community

was scathing.

Injecting Salk's vaccine, Albert Sabin warned,

might cause polio, not prevent it.

Sabin was very aggressive.

And he could be very abrasive.

He was trying everything to postpone the field trial,

to downgrade the Salk vaccine.

He said, "This vaccine isn't ready to be tested.

"We should wait five more years.

We should wait ten more years."

NARRATOR: O'Connor refused to wait.

With another polio season looming,

he would let nothing stop the trials.

"This is one of the most important projects

in medical history," he wrote

to parents across the country.

"We feel sure you'll want your child to take part."

(children shouting playfully)

BLACK: As a parent today, it's unimaginable

that I would be one of those people pushing my child

to the front of the line, saying, you know,

"Put the polio vaccine in my child first,

and let's see if it works."

OSHINSKY: You are asking the parents of America

to line up their kids for a vaccine

that no one is sure how well it works,

and no one is certain that it is perfectly safe.

It has really not been tested that much on humans.

This is an enormous leap of faith.

(kids chattering)

NARRATOR: On April 26, 1954,

the March of Dimes began field trials.

Randy Kerr,

a six-year-old in McLean, Virginia,

was the first to receive Salk's vaccine.

By June, nearly two million children had taken part.

It was the largest humanexperiment in American history.

Parents would have to wait for nearly a year

to learn the results.

On the morning of April 12, 1955,

the March of Dimes made their announcement.

TROAN: There was a build-up

to the report on the field trial.

Everybody was interested.

Everybody was waiting, waiting, waiting.

Does it work? Does it work?

BLACK: There was no bigger story at that time.

It was held in secrecy

like no state secret ever could be.

This news was awaited around the world.

NARRATOR: A press release would reveal the findings

everyone was waiting for.

TROAN: They were going to bring it up on an elevator.

(people clamoring)

The press room was overcrowded.

We were elbow to elbow.

The public relations man

steps off the elevator with the dolly

and he can't move into the press room.

Everybody ganging around him.

Guys were jumping over desks.

The fellow climbed up on the dolly

and he began flinging these things out left and right.

(flashbulbs popping)

It was bedlam.

(people clamoring)

(typewriters clacking, chiming)

ANNOUNCER (over radio): CBS News presents

a special report.

REPORTER (over radio): The Salk polio vaccine

is a success.

The vaccine works.

NARRATOR: Factory whistles blew,

school children cheered,

parents wept.

(kids cheering, shouting joyously)

TROAN: Everybody was so happy.

It was the most satisfying story I would cover

in 44 years in journalism.

PETER L. SALK: The relief that was brought about

by all of a sudden having something that could be done

to stop this, it was...

I think that was just overwhelming.

OFFIT: Jonas Salk was viewed as an American hero.

This awful disease

had now been conquered by this man who we had funded, who...

this scientist who was us.

OSHINSKY: This vaccine vindicated

20 years of giving dimes,

20 years of volunteering.

It was a victory for millions of faceless people

who had done what they could to end the scourge of polio.

NARRATOR: Five years before,

the disease had raged through Wytheville.

Now the community,

like thousands of others across the country,

would finally receive the vaccine.

I remember hearing about Dr. Salk, Dr. Salk,

and how exciting it was.

That man saved the world from polio.

NARRATOR: Less than a month after vaccinations began,

the nation's triumphant polio crusade

was brought to a screeching halt.

As surgeon general of the Public Health Service,

I recommended the day before yesterday

that vaccination programs against poliomyelitis

be temporarily postponed.

(siren blaring)

NARRATOR:Thousands of children vaccinated

with the new Salk vaccine had become sick.

Hundreds would be permanently paralyzed.

A handful would even die.

OSHINSKY: We have gone

from this amazing situation of euphoria,

a disease on the run,

to the vaccine itself producing additional cases of polio.

All polio vaccine is taken off the market

until the government can pinpoint

exactly what has gone wrong.

NARRATOR: Investigators soon learned

that all the sick children had been injected

with a bad batch of vaccine made in Berkeley, California.

After a hasty and poorly staffed government screening process,

the vaccine had been deemed safe.

In fact, it had contained virulent live polio virus.

Cutter Laboratories wasn't alone.

All the pharmaceutical companies were having difficulties

mass-producing Salk's formula.

One scientist, especially, felt vindicated--

Albert Sabin.

OSHINSKY: Sabin had always been of the mind

that not only was the Salk vaccine not effective

but potentially was unsafe.

After Cutter,Albert Sabin simply went around

to anyone who would ask-- and many people did--

saying, "I told you so."

NARRATOR: Despite the crisis,

O'Connor's confidence in Salk's vaccine never faltered.

REPORTER: What do you see for its future?

Well, I can only say to you that I see its future

is still a good, sound, safe vaccine

that will protect the people.

OFFIT: The Salk vaccine was licensed at a time

when we basically didn't have vaccine regulation

in this country.

The government learned

that having ten people oversee vaccines--

and, frankly, doing it on a part-time basis--

was not good enough.

The Cutter incident was a painful lesson

about the fact that we needed much better oversight.

NARRATOR: In the wake of the tragedy,

manufacturing standards would be tightened

and government regulation increased.

(bottles clattering)

But, only eight days after

the surgeon general announced a halt,

the nation's polio vaccination program resumed.

Americans continued to vaccinate their children.

They had waited years for the polio vaccine.

They were not about to wait any longer.

(marching band playing, people cheering)

The nation's polio vaccination program,

led by the March of Dimes,

now supported by the United States government,

proved safe and overwhelmingly effective.

Within just a few seasons,

the number of polio cases in the United States

decreased by 50%.

(baby crying)

Memories of summers filled with fear began to fade.

By 1962,

Albert Sabin's live virus vaccine was finally ready.

An oral vaccine, it was easier to administer

and cheaper to produce than Salk's.

The years to come would see the scientific efforts

of both Salk and Sabin pay off dramatically.

Polio, once one of America's most feared diseases,

became largely a thing of the past.

BLACK: Nobody cared about polio anymore.

It was over.

My mother, coming home from the rehab center,

it is not the story of triumph and conquering.

It is the story of defeat.

After a year of treatment, it didn't fix her.

It didn't fix our family.

Our family had disintegrated around her.

NARRATOR: When Kathryn Black was six years old,

her mother died.

(latch opening)

Larry Becker spent two-and-a-half years

in the hospital.

He learned to breathe on his own

by using the muscles in his neck.

His arms remained paralyzed,

but after slowly regaining the use of his legs,

he was finally ready to move home.

BECKER: There were three steps up to the house,

and then my bedroom would be upstairs.

This is the '50s.

If your bedroom was going to be upstairs,

then you had to learn to climb the steps.

When I graduated from college,

and when I got my Ph.D.,

local newspapers published a picture of me

writing with my feet.

I don't know what the headline is exactly.

I always think of it as "Polio Boy Makes Good,"

you know, that kind of...

And I thought, "Whoa,

this is going to follow me for the rest of my life."


But, you know, here I am whining.

It's not... it's no big deal.

(birds chirping)

NARRATOR: In 1994,

44 years after the epidemic hit Wytheville, Virginia,

and nearly 60 years after Basil O'Connor

first called upon Americans

to send their dimes to the White House,

polio was declared eradicated in the United States.


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv


You Are Cordially Invited
World Channel
WLIW Arts Beat
When The World Answered
Walk, Turn, Walk
Under a Minute
Tractor: The Movie
The “C” Files with Maria Brito
The Temple Makers
The Art Assignment
State of the Arts
State of the Art
Secrets of the Dead