How Elvis Helped America Eliminate Polio
The rock star’s much-publicized vaccination inspired reluctant U.S. teens to get inoculated
The first time Elvis Presley performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” some 60 million people—more than a third of the United States’ then-population of 168 million, notes Joanne Kenen for Politico—tuned in. One month after this record-breaking appearance, the King returned to the variety show, delivering rousing renditions of “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” But before he took to the stage that day, October 28, 1956, Elvis posed for the press as he received a polio vaccine. Hundreds of newspapers across the country published accounts of the event with photos of the star smiling jovially as a doctor administered the shot.
At the height of outbreaks in the late 1940s, polio paralyzed an average of more than 35,000 people each year; the disease particularly affected children, infecting nearly 60,000 and killing 3,000 in 1952 alone. Spread virally, it proved fatal for two out of every ten victims afflicted with paralysis. Though millions of parents rushed to inoculate their children following the introduction of Jonas Salk’s vaccine in 1955, teenagers and young adults had proven more reluctant to get the shot. As the New York Times reported the day after Elvis’ television appearance, just 10 percent of New York City’s teenagers had been vaccinated to date, “despite the fact that, after young children, they were the most susceptible to the disease.”
Public health officials recruited Elvis, who had skyrocketed to fame that year with his gyrating hips, crooning tunes and rakish good looks, to mobilize America’s teens.
“He is setting a fine example for the youth of the country,” New York City’s health commissioner, Leona Baumgartner, told the Times.
Between 1955 and 1957, polio cases in the U.S. dropped 81 percent, from 28,985 to 5,485. Elvis’ pre-show inoculation “was obviously a help in getting teenagers to take up the vaccine,” Stephen Mawdsley, an expert on modern American history at the University of Bristol, told the Observer’s Robin McKie in 2016, “but—intriguingly—not an overwhelming one.”
Instead, wrote Mawdsley in a 2016 journal article, much of the uptick in vaccination rates might be more attributable to the teenagers themselves. Supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), later renamed March of Dimes, America’s youth established a group called Teens Against Polio (TAP).
TAP and other vaccination mobilization efforts faced a number of significant obstacles. Writing for the Conversation, researchers Agnes Arnold-Forster and Caitjan Gainty note that the three injections needed to complete the process cost $3 to $5 each (around $30 to $50 in today’s money). For families with multiple children, these expenses added up quickly, leading some cash-strapped parents to opt for just one or two shots—an insufficient amount to fully ward off polio. Teenagers tended to view the disease as more of a childhood ailment, making their families reluctant to invest scarce funds in the treatment.
Compounding these factors was the specter of the 1955 Cutter incident, which found improperly manufactured vaccines actually caused 40,000 cases of polio. Of those affected, about 200 suffered some degree of paralysis. Another ten died.
“Cost, apathy and ignorance became serious setbacks to the eradication effort,” Mawdsley tells Politico.
To change their peers’ perceptions of the vaccine, TAP members employed a variety of methods, including producing pamphlets with such catchy slogans as “Don’t Balk at Salk,” collaborating with public health officials to subsidize injection costs and staging public events that highlighted the ease of getting vaccinated. Other strategies ranged from instituting a “no shots, no dates” policy in which young women refused to court unvaccinated suitors to hosting exclusive “Salk hops” that riffed on popular sock hop dances.
“[Members] canvassed door-to-door, and set up dances where only vaccinated individuals could get in,” Mawdsley explained to the Observer. “It showed, almost for the first time, the power of teens in understanding and connecting with their own demographic.”
Elvis may not have singlehandedly vanquished polio, but he did play a part in eliminating the widely feared disease. In addition to receiving his vaccine publicly, the rock idol recorded a PSA that proclaimed “[t]he fight against polio is as tough as it ever was.” Months after the “Ed Sullivan” appearance, NFIP even offered photographs signed by Elvis himself to any fan club that could prove all of its members were vaccinated.
Sixty-four years later, as authorities begin rolling out Covid-19 vaccines across the U.S., celebrities might once again step in to set an example for the public. Vice President Mike Pence and President-elect Joe Biden received their first doses of the vaccine on live television; actor Ian McKellen detailed his experience with the injection on Twitter. Suggestions for additional celebrity endorsements abound: The Verge’s staffers propose such public figures as Elizabeth II, Dolly Parton (who helped fund Moderna’s vaccine) and Oprah Winfrey, while the Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox suggests Beyoncé, Tom Hanks and Serena Williams.
Few, if any, modern celebrities wield as much heft as Elvis did at the height of his popularity. Together, though, these names may carry enough weight to convince an increasingly distrustful audience of the vaccine’s safety.
As journalist and historian David M. Perry points out in a CNN op-ed, “We’re gonna need not just one Elvis, but a whole all-star band to get this done.”