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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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The reporters were the first to arrive. Streaming inside, they were steered to their third-floor holding room. Dignitaries and guests arrived at the building shortly after the reporters did. Among the last to appear, in the custody of a University of Michigan public relations escort, were Donna Salk, Jonas’ wife; Peter, Darrell and Jonathan, their three young sons, who recall the day clearly; and Jonas’ younger brother, Lee.

With the audience in place, most eyes turned toward the stage, where an empty dais and a large lectern draped with a blue-and-gold University of Michigan banner waited. After a moment, there was a shifting in the wings, and two lines of business-suited scientists, Salk among them, walked awkwardly onto the stage and took their seats with a scraping of chairs. Alarge bank of bright lights flared to life in the back of the hall as 16 television and newsreel cameras began to roll. At precisely five minutes after 10:00, Hart Van Riper, the medical director of the NFIP, rose from his seat on the far left side of the dais and stepped to the lectern.

“In a letter to Mary Gladstone,” he began, “Lord Acton wrote: ‘The great object in trying to understand history is to get behind men and grasp ideas.’ ”

In her seat in the middle of the auditorium, Donna Salk noticed her sons already beginning to squirm. Jonathan, not yet 5 years old, was the worst.

“Lee,” she whispered, leaning over the boys to her brother-in-law. “Would you. . . ?” She gestured to Jonathan.

Lee nodded, lifted Jonathan from his seat and carried him quietly up the aisle and out of the room.

Once Van Riper completed his remarks, Harlan Hatcher, the university’s president, rose and took the microphone. “Before we proceed,” he said, “I’d just like to ask the platform party,” he gestured broadly at Salk and the others, “to move off the stage and occupy the first two rows of the lecture hall. This is to spare you the lights and make it possible to see the charts in the talks to come.”

The men on the dais looked at one another and did as they were told, standing and moving to either side of the stage, where they lined up to descend the two short staircases leading down to the audience. Only Francis remained.

“Now,” said Hatcher, “I have the pleasure of presenting Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., director of the PoliomyelitisVaccineEvaluationCenter of the University of Michigan.”

Francis wore a black suit, his mustache was neatly trimmed, his glasses glinted. He positioned himself behind the lectern. For Salk, low in his front-row seat in the auditorium, Francis was not easy to see. Francis shuffled the thick sheaf of papers he carried and settled himself. At 10:20, he began to speak.

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