Memories of what life was like before the polio vaccine

By Jini Clare
Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise
Posted3/29/2012 12:34 PM

April 12 will be the 57th anniversary of the world-changing announcement that the Salk vaccine was effective in preventing polio.

I remember the announcement well. It was broadcast over the public address system in my elementary school in Ann Arbor, Mich. My teacher, Mrs. Balas, was very excited when she heard the news. As an adult, I now understand why.


A year earlier, in April 1954, I had been one of the children known as Polio Pioneers. I remember my teacher walking our class to the elementary school library where we were greeted by nurses and health care workers dressed in white. The workers filled out paperwork as we passed by their tables, and then we each received a shot in the arm.

Others tell me we were each given a lollipop and a white "Polio Pioneer" button to wear, but I don't remember receiving them. I just remember feeling brave.

Little did we know we were all part of a massive field trial that would change the course of history.

That trial, designed and led by Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, was the largest and most comprehensive ever done. Roughly 1.8 million schoolchildren received shots in a double-blind research study that involved youngsters from 217 areas of the United States, Canada and Finland.

The newly developed Salk Vaccine was given to 650,000 children and 1.18 million children received a placebo. Neither the administering physicians nor the patients knew whether the inoculation was a vaccine or inert solution.

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Francis had been Jonas Salk's mentor when Salk came to the University of Michigan in 1941 to study virology, and it was in Francis' lab that Salk learned the methodology of vaccine development. Salk was at the University of Pittsburgh when he developed the polio vaccine.

The results of the study, known as the Francis Report, were announced on April 12, 1955, during a major press conference at the University of Michigan Rackham Building. Francis began with the words, "The vaccine works. It is safe, effective and potent."

Over the next few years, I witnessed the effects of the polio vaccine in a vivid way. My mother worked as a hospital schoolteacher in a classroom on the top floor of the University of Michigan Hospital. She shared that floor with the polio ward.

As I visited her at work or while volunteering as a candy-striper, I would talk to children in iron lungs. Lying on their backs, they could see me only by looking at my reflection in the mirror angled a few inches from their faces.


The ward was full of children encased in these life-saving machines. Within a few years, as I emerged from the elevator on the top floor of the hospital, I began to see empty iron lungs lining the hallway. Soon, there were no iron lungs and the polio ward was gone.

At the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the successful vaccine in Ann Arbor, a celebration was held at the University of Michigan. Salk was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He answered, "I want to be there when a child in the next generation asks his father, 'Hey Daddy, what's polio?'"

In February, when Nicki Scott told her family she had been selected to go to India to administer the polio vaccine to children there, her own daughter was very excited for her.

"Mom, that's wonderful! I am so proud of you!" her daughter said. "What's polio?"

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