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When We Were Vaccine Guinea Pigs

Mom and Dad were kids who survived the Great Depression and World War II, so by the time I came along, not much scared them.

But as spring 1954 arrived, they both were jittery and tense though never hysterical. They were not the hysterical sort. They were a "snap out of it" sort of people.

But they were deeply fearful for me and my younger brother.

They were afraid of polio. Everybody was.

In our quest for safety, Mom and I drove the 13 miles north from Boynton Beach and lined up with maybe a thousand strong in a spacious elementary gym in Palm Beach, Fla., one May morning. We were dressed in our starched, pressed Sunday finery, even the moms. I thought there must have been a million kids in that gym.

A year earlier on March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio. He gave the vaccine to himself, his wife and his three children. He did the test in his kitchen after boiling the needles and syringes on his stovetop.

My mother took great confidence that Salk persuaded his wife to take the shot.

But he needed a massive gene pool of guinea pigs. That's where I came in.

We might have been lab rats in the initial mass test of the vaccine. No matter. It was a vaccine and as far as medical science knew, it thwarted polio. That "if-then" promise would have been enough for my mother.

I have no recollection that my younger brother was vaccinated in that first experiment. Perhaps Mom and Dad designated him as a back-up son in the bullpen just in case the vaccine gave me the disease. Can't be too careful.

Thus, off to Palm Beach we drove for the grand preventative cure.

We were all 7- or 8-year-old sweaty little lab monkeys, and moms gripped our hands tightly lest we might escape. I do not recall my mother ever holding my hand that tightly, either before that day or after. It was as if we all would slip into an endless abyss if they let our hands loose.

The gym dripped and sizzled in nervous anticipation, mostly our moms. Big floor fans kept the heavy air moving. It was hot, but it always was hot, smelly and sweaty in South Florida.

We basted in our own fragrant sweat. The first time I saw that happen to a Thanksgiving turkey no one had to explain the procedure to me.

Nurses and orderlies all in white uniforms and white shoes hustled to and fro, as the line eased forward one inoculation at a time. Every 30 seconds, we all took one stride closer to rescue.

It was May 4, as best as I can recall the specifics.

It was the morning Salk and his polio vaccine saved our lives.

Of course, polio was hardly the deadliest illness then, but it rode on fear's coattails because polio struck without warning.

But Salk's magic elixir saved us from death or permanent paralysis. Shielded us from the gruesome iron lung machine, a massive, cylindrical sarcophagus that even children knew was a mechanical form of living death. If those afflicted were lucky to survive, they could spend the rest of their lives in a wheel chair, relearning how to walk and stand with withered muscles. And learn how to will their lungs to breathe again.

Salk was a virtual god to moms everywhere.

Even at 7, I knew what polio did. It killed you. Mostly it killed children.

We were not a family that staged "family counsels" to share information, opinions and advice. Thank goodness that 1954 spared us that indignity.

But even at 7, I paid attention to whispered conversations in adjoining rooms. I knew polio. Dad was a newspaper man, and the papers were full of fearful headlines. I was an early reader.

On the first week of May, thousands of Florida kids lined up just as I did, and had their lives changed. The state was emotionally wrought that spring because a polio outbreak had swept through it.

According to the Palm Beach Post of that day in 1952, the nation had 58,000 cases. Broward County and Fort Lauderdale - 30 miles to the south of Boynton Beach - had 95 in 1954.

Palm Beach County, where we lived, had more than 60 kids stricken. Polio swamped children's hospitals in West Palm Beach and Miami.

Those totals seem moderate compared to COVID-19's current death toll. But we were a smaller nation then, and Florida was only a foreshadowed hint of the sweaty colossus it became.

Only 2.7 million people populated the entire state that year. There are 23 million now.

But human emotions might not fit on a demographic sliding scale. Every heartache in a nation of 130 million, as it was in 1954, might be just as intense as a nation of 331 million. But we were lucky. We had not yet found that satellite-distributed media malevolence could torment us into heightened fear. There was no money yet in enraging the nation's guttural instincts.

There was no social media to ratchet the panic, and we were insulated except for rumors. Plus, every other state in the nation seemed like a foreign land to us then. At least to me.

Once a year, we would take the round trip 1,000 miles both ways from Boynton to my hometown of Danville, Ky. I and my brother occupied the back seat of Mom and Dad's old Mercury. It seemed like being hurled to a different galaxy riding on a lumpy mattress.

In 1954, the scope of life was condensed into smaller but more intense pockets of sensation. Your tragedies all seemed immediate to your home.

But even then, losing hundreds of children in your state to a mystery contagion was a cruel, monstrous, fearsome tragedy.

Salk's vaccine worked, just as he promised it would. We trusted science then, and trusted scientists too. Mom held an odd affection for the atomic bomb because, as she said, American scientists said it would work and it did.

As newspapers reported, the whole world hailed the breakthrough against a mysterious virus. Since 1920, polio had crippled 550,000 Americans and killed 46,500 - most of them children. Florida counted about 8,000 cases. But besides the numerical toll, polio was fear-inducing because no one knew exactly how it worked, how it spread or what caused it.

The virus likely had accompanied humanity through millennia.

As the authoritative Philadelphia College of Physicians noted, "Poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, multiplying along the way to the digestive tract, where it further multiplies. In about 98 percent of cases, polio is a mild illness, with no symptoms or with viral-like symptoms. In paralytic polio, the virus leaves the digestive tract, enters the bloodstream, and then attacks nerve cells. Fewer than 1 percent - 2 percent of people who contract polio become paralyzed. In severe cases, the throat and chest may be paralyzed. Death may result if the patient does not receive artificial breathing support."

Sound familiar?

That day and year are so long ago that we might be tempted to think we clearly are advanced now. Science might be improved, but we are not provably improved as a nation of rational thinkers.

Sixty-seven years should have given us a better crack at intelligence on such matters as deadly viruses. Do you feel smarter? If anything, we appear to have become far dumber responded to important topics.

As for COVID-19, the same strain of lifelong scientist who told us the Salk vaccine and atomic bomb would work now tell us to take the COVID vaccine, wear face masks, stay six feet away from strangers and wash your hands frequently.

Do that, and COVID-19 gets sent to the biological ash heap of deadly microbes.

It's almost the same prescription that ditched small pox, cholera, measles, mumps, rabies, anthrax, typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, to name a few.

We took the vaccine. It worked. According to the Centers for Disease Control, polio cases plummeted to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s.

There has not been a natively generated polio case in America since 1979.

Mom and Dad relaxed that summer of 1954. We all were happier, even the sweaty guinea pigs.


David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was The Quest For Papa's Perfect Sentence. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on April 13, 2021

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