1954 Polio Pioneer

March 23, 2010 Anonymous

Were you a polio pioneer, or are you related to someone who was? We’re looking for people who participated in the groundbreaking trial for Jonas Salk’s killed-virus polio vaccine in 1954.

We’d love to talk with you about your experience. We’re also hoping to get photograph of a Polio Pioneer card, a card given to children for participating in the first national tests of a trial polio vaccine conducted during 1954. (For reference, see a photograph of a Polio Pioneer card on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s excellent web exhibit on the history of polio vaccine development.) Email us at vaccines@collegeofphysicians.org to let us know about your experiences as a Polio Pioneer. [Edit 3/8/2013: Thank you to so many of you who sent us pictures of your cards. Feel free to keep sending them if you wish, but we do have quite a few now.]


Posted by Ronne Peltzman… (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in Brooklyn, New York -- I was in 2nd grade at PS 177. The vaccines were administered in the school gym, and I remember standing in line to receive it. I still have my Polio Pioneer card. I do remember my mother getting a letter saying that I had received the placebo ("You got water," she told me), and then, sometime later, getting the actual vaccine. This time our family doctor, Harry Beckenstein, administered it. It was considered a miracle -- I still remember what a scourge polio was in my very early childhood. A girl who lived across the street from me had had it, and a girl in my 4th grade class still wore braces on her legs as a result of having polio. Parents were terrified of it. The sprinkler at our local playground was never turned on, because of the belief that the virus could be carried in the water. I feel proud and privileged to have been in the test group, and eternally grateful for the vaccine.

Posted by Dennis Murphy (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in Fayetteville, NY in 1954. I was in third grade and distinctly remember that day because we got to go to the brand new elementary school which our class did not get to use until the following year.

I also remember that a class bully cried and screamed when he saw the needle. It did not bother me as I had been receiving regular allergy shots for years, so I felt pretty smug.

I did receive the placebo and needed to get the real vaccine some time later.

I still have my Polio Pioneer card that, like Juliana, my Mom put in my life history book that she made many years later. I also have a photograph of that third grade class, probably they all participated in the test. No names on the picture unfortunately.

Posted by Kathleen Motley-Hale (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer back in the 50s. I remember receiving 5 Salk injections at Birch Lane School in Massapequa Park, NY, and then having to take the Sabin cubes at a later time because I had initially received the placebo. I had a pin but I'm not sure if I still have it. I remember there was a lot of fear at that time about the dangers of catching polio.

Posted by Linda McPhee (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in the second grade at Sylvan School in Portland, Oregon. I was not injected but gave blood samples and was given a pin. As I remember the vials were drawn at school. I am 67 years old so it was long ago. I remember that my parents were very supportive of my giving blood for research but did not want me to have the injections that early. I am glad that I was able to donate blood easily from that early age. From 18 on I have been a regular blood donor.

Posted by Bob Cieslak (not verified)

I was also a Polio Pioneer. I got the shot in New York Mills, NY in 1954 by my family doctor who was also the school physician. I think I still have my card down in the cellar someplace. I'll see if I can dig it up.

Posted by Pamela (Langne… (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer and still have my card and letter that came with the card. I was in Irvington, CA which is now part of Fremont, CA. I barely remember the shots, but when I was either 18 or 21 I had to go take a chest xray and that is when I asked my Mom about being a guniea pig, or lab rat. But later when I saw people in the iron lungs I was grateful for the chance to participate and the blessing that gave me the vaccine.

Posted by Kim Allen (not verified)

I just found my polio pioneer card this morning as we were clearing out some old papers. I was in second grade, June 8, 1954, at the Atlantic Avenue School in Lynbrook, (Long Island) NY. I can 'see' the room and remember the nurse asking me where I got my 'pretty hair' to distract me from the needle.

Posted by Elaine Stewart Craft (not verified)

Being a Polio Pioneer was an important step in my life. I remember my neighborhood girlfriend Noreen who had contracted polio and wore leg braces and used crutches. My parents made sure that I was signed up for the shots.
I got them at North School in Torrington, CT, and remember being taken out of class to get them. We were nervous second-graders, and some of us became ill - from nerves - and were allowed to go home early.
My Polio Pioneer card has always been in my possession and is probably in my girlhood scrapbook. I'll have to look for it when I get home this spring!
Last year my husband and I went to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, and participated in their architectural tour. We passed, but were not allowed to enter, some of the many labs they have there for research into all kinds of diseases.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I still have my Polio Pioneer card from 1954. I was one of the children who got the "real" thing. I posted a photo of my card on facebook. Was wondering if ALL schools in the country participated or only those in certain areas.

Posted by Project Director

Thanks for the comment. Not all school participated -- in all, about 1.8 million US schoolchildren were enrolled in the trial in the experimental group or the injected or observed control groups. I should probably look up how many 1st and 2nd graders there were in 1954 so we could get an idea of what percentage of US children in this age cohort were enrolled.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in San Antonio,TX . Got the shots at St. Peter's Catholic School in 1954. Still have my card, which I found in my Mom's effects after she died. Polio was a terrifying thing in those days and most of us knew kids who had it. The"lucky" ones had braces and the worst were in iron lungs. We spent a lot of time at the pool in the Summers and that was considered to be risky--but didn't stop us! Lots different from the risk-averse culture we have today.

Posted by Barbara Kimm (not verified)

I attended Kenwood Eiem. In Cedar Rapids, IA during 2nd grade in 1954. I received the placebo vaccine for polio, thus was lucky enough to get 4 more shots. I have not been able to locate my pin (which I remember) or any certificates. I plan a trip to the CR library to research experience. I have tried to imagine parents today allowing their children to be experimented with in this way. Barb, Dysart, IA.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in Davenport, Iowa, at Hayes Elementary School when I was in second grade and my sister was in first grade. We both got the real vaccine on the first round of three shots and were relieved that we did not have to go back the next year to get the real vaccine, as the shots terrified us.

I remember our classes being lined up in the school library to get the shots in an assembly line of medical personnel. I also remember how relieved my parents were at the development of the vaccine. Everyone was terrified of polio and we were kept away from lakes and swimming pools in the summer from fear of getting it, although we did take swimming lessons at a heavily chlorinated indoor pool in downtown Davenport (a place called the Lend-a-Hand, which has since been demolished) before the vaccine.

I can't find my Polio Pioneer card or certificte, but I do have a card certifying that I got a polio booster shot in 1955.

In the late 1970s, I met a woman my age in a wheelchair from polio. She too had gotten the three shots in 1954, but she got the placebo shots and contracted polio. How sad, I've always thought, that she helped prove the vaccine worked but spent the rest of her life with that terrible disease.

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Thank you for sharing your story! It's very unfortunate about the woman who received the placebo and contracted polio. I assume that she was infected during the time of the study, because the placebo recipients got the vaccine after the study period. In Oshinsky's Polio: An American Story, he shows that in the placebo group, 115 cases of paralytic polio occurred, and in the observed controls, 330 cases occurred (there were cases in the vaccine groups, too: a total of 71 cases in both arms of the study). Jonas Salk was very opposed to having a placebo group, because he believed in his vaccine and knew that many of the children in the control groups would contract polio (Oshinsky, page 180).

Posted by John Carlin (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer on Long Island, at my grammar school near Levittown. I remember kids fainting all over the place and my fear of getting a shot. My mother was a volunteer asistant and when my place in line got to where I was going to get my shot, my mother said "don't worry dear, I'm going to give you a nice sharp needle!" Well that almost made me faint, not knowing that the sharper the needle, the less the pain!

Posted by Patsye Thompson (not verified)

I too was in middle school near Levittown, (we lived on Primrose Lane or Place??) probably the same school as you, and received the shot. My sister had to get it twice since she got the placebo. I have my card and pin because my mom was very proud that we were part of something so historic. I grew up to be a nurse, and worked for 30 years in ICU's around Washington, D.C.

I was looking for this information because I just finished the book Blue, a story about the polio epidemic in Hickory, NC. Interesting book.

Posted by Frank Shulock (not verified)

I am a Polio Pioneer. In 1954 I was in second grade in State College Pa. My parents enrolled me in Kindergarden when I was only 4 since my birthday was in December, so I was lucky (although I didnt think so at the time). I recall that the shot burned when it went in and I realy wasn't looking to the next two. I also recall another series of shots later, but I could be wrong. Got a pin, but don't remember the card. One of my Aunts had Polio and had a brace on her leg her whole life. When I was in High School I also got the oral vaccine as a further precaution.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

My experience mirrors nearly everyone else's. Years later I asked my mom how they so readily gave permission for their kids to be used for testing. She said it was because everyone knew a family who had been struck. I have no documentation

Posted by r.n. morrison (not verified)

i was a polio pionee. Recieved my shot at shattuck grade school in 1954. A Picture of our group was on the front page of the local paper in Portland , Oregon.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I, unfortunately, was not a polio pioneer. I contracted polio in early September of 1954, just seven months before Salk's vaccine would be licensed. I was just shy of three years old. I have very vague memories of hospital stays and surgeries as a young child. and of course growing-up with a disability presented me with a few challenges. But I thank the dedicated nurses, staff and doctors that helped me to walk again (and again and again). I often refer to myself as "The Last of the Class" because once the vaccine was fully distributed, cases like mine simply disappeared from the landscape. Whenever I was in the hospital or attending therapy, I noticed that I was always the youngest person around. Polio simply vanished from the landscape. Today I am sixty-one years and and have been living with the effects of post-polioand it's challenges for quite awhile now.

Those of you who were the polio pioneers should be proud of what you helped to achieve. The sight of children in braces, crutches and wheelchairs is rare compared to what it was before the Salk vaccine.

Posted by Mark Creighton (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer. Sea Isle City, NJ. 1954, Mrs. Anderson's class, 5th grade. Stood in line in the hall and entered the cloak room to have a shot from Dr. Hauk. My dad had polio and had spent a year in an iron lung in 1936-37. He was most anxious for us kids to be immunized.

Posted by Dan Bell (not verified)

I am proud to have been a Polio Pioneer. I gave blood at my school in a small coal mining town in southern West Virginia. I think I was in the fourth grade but the school was Kimball Junior High School.

Posted by Angela (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Holy Ghost Catholic School in Houston, TX. I was in the second grade, Sister Beatrice's class. My cousin, Billy, contracted polio and had to wear braces throughout his childhood. I'm not sure I would have been so eager for my own child or grandchildren to be test subjects for a new vaccine, but our society was far more trusting in 1954.

Posted by Pat (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Main Street School in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. If I had the shot after April 15, 1954, I was 7 - either 1st or 2nd grade. We were lined up in our gym in our school as I recall. I remember feeling sort of excited - more about a change in the routine. I wasn't scared of shots so I don't think that was an issue and I don't even remember it. I saved my button and still have it...

Posted by Mike Masinter (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer who was vaccinated as a second grader in 1954 in Charleston, W.Va. My parents were eager to have me participate because of a particularly bad polio outbreak in Charleston in the summer of 1953.

Posted by Craig Bailey (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer. I kept the pin and card for decades and may still have them boxed up somewhere. I remember getting a series of shots at Mary Munford elementary school in Richmond, Virginia. i wasn't crazy about getting shots but on one hand it just seemed part of getting vaccinations (I had received plenty of shots by the time I got the polio shots). On the other hand, it was presented to me, at least, that these shots had some larger importance outside of my personal safety. My father had a close friend with polio whom we visited monthly for years; he himself missed about fifteen months of high school due to either a mild case of polio or meningitis from another source. He had another friend who owned a lake that he developed as a recreational center; it closed when it was suspected as a source of polio. The man commited suicide. So, my parents were very supportive; I think my mother may have volunteered to help take care of the children. I vaguely remember a newspaper article and picture. The only mishap I remember (outside of crying kids) was having a needle stick in the bone of my arm during one of the followup shots.

Posted by Zvi Peretz (Pa… (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in Roosevelt Elementary School in Ossining, NY. I don't remember the card, but the pin was a cherished memory of which I was very proud. I retell the story often to my grandchildren, who live in a better world because of Polio Pioneers.

Posted by Shirley Saunders (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer...do not remember a lot of it...I lived in Bridgeport Ct.. and would have been 7 years old in 1954. My two brothers and I were...my mother was an RN and signed us up It was Maplewood Elementary

Posted by Linda Brown O'Brien (not verified)

In 1954 I was in second grade and received the Salk vaccine as a Polio Pioneer. I attended the Warren Oaks School in Framingham MA. My older brother contracted polio a year before so I could understand why my parents wanted me to participate in the study. I was just glad the I received the real vaccine and not the placebo. I am surprised to see how many different schools participated from all over the country. It was a very interesting experience.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

My older brother, my sister and I were polio pioneers at Newhall East elementary school in Wyoming, Michigan. I remember talking about it with my parents afterward. I I don't remember a card or anything like that, but remember feeling proud(as only a child can feel) that I was one of the first to get the Salk vaccine.

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