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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

“During the spring of 1954,” he read, “an extensive field trial of the effectiveness of a formalin-inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine, as developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and his associates, was initiated by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.”

Francis spoke with little inflection, reading the text cold from the page. This, of course, was the way protocol demanded it be done at a scientific conference. And for all the sensation here today, that’s what this was. Within the auditorium, the audience listened silently. Beyond the walls of the big room, the press waited invisibly. In cities around the country, 54,000 doctors stared at closed-circuit television screens. Francis talked on until finally, well into the patient presentation, he came to three exquisite bits of information, held fast in the thick amber of what he had come here to say.

“In placebo-controlled areas,” he read, “the poliomyelitis vaccination was 68 percent effective against polio Type I, 100 percent effective against Type II, and 92 percent effective against Type III.”

Then, for those who didn’t understand the enormousness of those numbers, he said it another way. “The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”

An absolute silence continued to fill the hall, but there is silence and there is silence, and this one was filled with a noisy uncoiling. It was the uncoiling of a spring that had been wound tight since the epidemic year of 1916. It was a spring that had been tightened in the summer of 1921, when a tall man with presidential ambitions contracted a children’s disease, losing the ability even to rise back up to his full height, never mind—so it appeared—to lead the nation. It was a spring that it had seemed would never uncoil, and now it did with a sudden whip crack that made no sound at all.

In the audience, Donna Salk’s cheeks ran with tears, as did the faces of uncounted scientists. There was, to be sure, a lot of Francis’ presentation yet to go. He spoke for an hour and 38 minutes, explaining all of the nuances of the numbers. But the three numbers he kept coming back to—68 percent, 100 percent and 92 percent—held the listeners fast. This was far better than even some of the optimists had expected. And the 68 percent, the least impressive of the three findings, was almost certainly a result of a preservative that had been added to the Type I vaccine against Salk’s wishes and that could easily be removed in later manufacturing.

Francis concluded his talk and left the stage, and other foundation scientists came up to speak. Finally, at 12:05, Basil O’Connor, the president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and Franklin Roosevelt’s former law partner, looked down at the front row of the auditorium and introduced Jonas Salk.

At the mention of Salk’s name, a roar of applause filled the hall, and the audience members—laypeople and scientists alike—rose to their feet. Cheers and whistles joined the applause. Salk stood awkwardly in the front row, blinking a little in the camera lights. He mounted the few steps to the stage and the noise only grew. Finally, as he took his spot behind the lectern, the audience at last began to exhaust itself, became quieter and sat.

Salk spoke for only about 15 minutes, but so great was the crush of people when he left the stage that it took at least another hour for him to move beyond the front of the room, collect Donna and the boys, and fight his way out of the building. It would be another three days before the demands for newspaper interviews and television appearances would slow enough that he could gather the family up and fly home to Pittsburgh. Just before he left Rackham Lecture Hall that morning, Edward R. Murrow, the CBS journalist and former war correspondent, caught his ear for a quiet aside. “Young man,” he told him, “a great tragedy has befallen you. You’ve lost your anonymity.”

 

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