Conquering Polio

Fifty years ago, a scientific panel declared Jonas Salk's polio vaccine a smashing success. A new book takes readers behind the headlines

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It wasn’t easy to make room for the newsreel cameras and television crews that streamed into Rackham Lecture Hall at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 50 years ago this month, not to mention the hundreds of reporters arriving from around the world. Carpenters had to build a long platform in the back of the auditorium just to give the cameramen a place to stand. As for the reporters, they would be banished to a holding room on the third floor where they could smoke and curse and shout into the phone as was their fashion, and would be summoned only when it was time for the grand announcement they had all come to hear.

The month was April, and already the temperature was rising in the states far to the south—ideal conditions for the virus that causes poliomyelitis. Sure as crocuses, the paralysis would arrive with the warm weather, twisting bodies with a randomness that confounded the best doctors. Just three years earlier, in the summer of 1952, nearly 58,000 Americans had contracted the disease, most of them children. Many would never walk again, some lost the use of their arms, others never saw another summer. The prospect of such contagion-by-calendar had shadowed every summer for the better part of a century. The possibility that the plague could be stopped for good carried sweet promise indeed.

Jonas Salk, a 40-year-old physician and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, had been working on a vaccine against polio for years, and he was closing in fast. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP, now known as the March of Dimes) had given him approval to conduct a test of his vaccine. More than 1.8 million children across the country participated, and after nearly a year of tracking the subjects, a committee of senior scientists was ready to announce if the vaccine worked. That was why so many people had gone to Michigan that April day in 1955.

Salk grew up in polio’s midst. Consider the summer of 1916, when what was then the worst polio epidemic in the nation’s history swept through 26 states, with the greatest number of cases in New York City. Salk was just a toddler. Two brothers would be born later, but at the time just he and his mother and father, who worked in a garment factory, lived in a small apartment on Manhattan’s East 106th Street. Cardboard placards began appearing on houses around the city like ugly paper boils. “INFANTILE PARALYSIS,” the signs announced in block letters, and then, parenthetically, “Poliomyelitis.” his was the warning that followed:

All persons not occupants of these premises are advised of he presence of Infantile Paralysis in it and are advised not to enter.
The person having Infantile Paralysis must not leave the apartment until the removal of this notice by an employee of the Department of Health.
By order of the BOARD OF HEALTH

Doctors knew little about infantile paralysis. They knew the mossy tales of the ancient carving of a young Egyptian man with a dropped foot, a shriveled leg and a walking stick, suggesting the disease had been around for at least 3,500 years. The German Jacob von Heine wrote about the disease in 1840; Oskar Karl Medin, a Swede who built on Heine’s work, described a polio outbreak in Stockholm in 1887 that claimed 44 children. They suggested that the disease had the kind of contagious character that could lead to epidemics. Later came Ivar Wickman, a pupil of Medin, who recognized that there were three different types of polio. The name poliomyelitis came from the Greek terms polios, for gray, and myelon, for marrow, and referred to the core of gray matter that ran down the center of the spinal cord, the area that was scored and scarred when a case of infantile paralysis struck. In 1908, Viennese scientists Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper determined that the disease was caused by a virus.

But this knowledge availed doctors little in the scourge summer of 1916. Local newspapers reported that by the first of July, 350 New York children had been paralyzed by the disease and 75 of them had died. On the afternoon of July 3, the city health commissioner issued a series of orders: of the 51 biggest celebrations planned for the upcoming Fourth of July, 15 would be canceled. Plans for city-sponsored open-air movies would also be scrapped. Children under 16 years of age would be banned from all places where large crowds gathered. Businesses caught disobeying the new regulations would be stripped of their licenses. More than half a million leaflets would immediately be printed and distributed, explaining what was known about the disease and urging the populace to take precautions.

The new rules went promptly into effect—and the polio bug slapped them aside. One hundred thirteen new cases were counted on July 5, and 133 followed on the sixth. Terrorized New Yorkers began freelancing solutions. Cats, many people concluded, were responsible for spreading the bug. When word got out that there was a bounty on the animals’ heads, boys in Brooklyn rounded them up and brought them hissing and scratching to be euthanized. When the bounty turned out to be a rumor, the boys killed the cats themselves.

More than 70,000 cats were killed that month, but the epidemic roared on. If cats weren’t responsible, perhaps mosquitoes were. If it wasn’t mosquitoes, it was rats or sewers or the always dirty GowanusCanal that runs through the heart of Brooklyn. New Yorkers called, cabled and wrote the Department of Health with all manner of things they were certain were causing the plague, including high groundwater, ice-cream cones, excavations, flies, bedbugs, street dust, cornflakes, the subway, parasites in the water, alloys in cooking utensils, gases from munitions factories, the bent-over position children assumed at school desks, mercury poisoning, white clothing, earthquakes, volcanoes, electrical disturbances, sunburn, intestinal derangements, secondhand bedding, decayed food, excessive glare, unclean milk bottles, carrying coins in the mouth and tobacco.

Tens of thousands of people decided to quit the city altogether. For families without the means to flee, like Jonas Salk’s, there was little to do but wait. Salk turned 2 years old in October, the same month the weather at last grew cool and New York City could begin to put the season of terror behind it. In the end, the doctors counted 27,000 cases of poliomyelitis around the country, 6,000 of them fatal. Nine thousand of the victims lived in the boroughs that made up New York City.


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