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 Donna Cannizza… (not verified)

I remember standing in line with my classmates,. I think I was outside-but can't be sure. I was in 3rd grade at McMorrow school in Richmond Heights, MO when I received my polio shot. I remember the word "pioneer" was used, but I don't remember a card. I do remember I had made a little friend in Kindergarten , Joey. It was too late for him. He had had polio and wore leg braces and walked with crutches. I was born June, 1947.

Posted by Wanda Douglas (not verified)

I was 6 years old and in the 1st grade in a small town outside of Austin, Texas. The teacher didn't give an explanation, she just told us to line up and follow her. We stood in a long line outside of a building. Everything seemed ok until a few kids came out crying, then we started getting scared. But the actual shot didn't hurt as much as I thought it would. I sometimes look at the scar on my left arm from the polio vaccination and remember a bunch of scared kids that did not want to go through that door where the nurses were waiting./ My mom did have to take me see a doc after the vaccination because I came down with a thrush infection in my mouth. The doc looked at my vaccination wound and said it was healing nicely but told my mom not to let me put anything in my mouth. I still don't understand it but I was told by the doctor to lay in the sun on a blanket with only a pair of panties on, for at least an hour everyday until it was cleared up. My mom also had to wipe my mouth out with something that was a blue liquid. So not only did I have a vaccination shot but an infection afterwards too. So, I had a new scar and infection, back to back of each other.

Posted by Edith L. Murway (not verified)

One of my sons was a part of the Salk Vaccine Field Trial in 1954
at the Levittown School in N.Y. His father had already become a
victim of that dread disease in 1953. At that time I and my four children received the Gamma Globin shot. When the Field Test was available, my second-grade boy received the vaccine (we found that out in 1955 when the results were revealed). My daughter was 11 years old so she was not part of the trial. My other 2 sons were pre-schoolers...All of us had symptoms of Polio in 1953 but did not actually come down with it...except the second-grader who never got any symptoms at all...(although he was always inclined to "catch" anything that was "going around")...His father was a polio resperator patient for 20 years (paralyzed from the waist up)spent a year in the iron lung and the other 19 with various types of breathing apparatus as new ones were invented along the way)and slept in a "Rocking Bed" ....but could not walk, because he couln't breath. He died of pneumonia in 1973. Thank God for
the vaccine which has save millions of people from that terrible

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Thank you for your moving comment, Mrs. Murway. Best wishes to you and your family.

Posted by MELVINA JOHANNES (not verified)

I am a Polio Pioneer taking part in the first tests in Calgary, Alberta. I did recieve a Polio Pioneer card and still have it, if I can find it. My sister Betty was also a Polio Pioneer.
The grade six students were given a test vaccine which was a double blind test. I will try to locate the card so you may be able to get a photo of it. Please be patient as I have recently moved can't lay my hands on it at this time.

Posted by Patricia (not verified)

I remember being in first grade at Blessed Sacrament School and getting in line to get the first polio shot, I had the card that said polio pioneer. I never realized before that time that there was a threat of getting that dreaded virus.

Posted by Loyola (not verified)

My class, first or 2nd grade, 1954? was "Polio Pioneers" at St Joseph grade school in Yakima, WA. We got shots. I believe half the class got placebo, half got the actual vaccine. our parents were told after the study, so that those who got placebo could get actual vaccine once it was released. One boy in our class got the placebo, and did contract polio and died that year. It was still fairly common in those days. I remember films of people in "iron longs." It was a frightening disease. When the oral vaccine came out when I wass in high school, we got that too. It was adminstered as drops on a sugar cube. We had to get a seconf dose later. As for a Polio Pioneer card, I don't remember that, but we we given a pin which I held onto for years, don't know what ever became of it.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I still have my polio pioneer card and pin. I was a student at the Scarborough Country Day School, Scarborough, NY. I was notified that I had received the real vaccine. I am 68 years old and have never had a major health issue.

Posted by Paula Brown Sinclair (not verified)

I am a Polio Pioneer. I was in 3rd grade at Boyd School, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My mother treasured that card, but I don't think there was a pin. I later also had the Sabin vaccine on one Sunday when my entire town (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin) lined up at the elementary school for the sugar cubes.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

My mother was told several years later that I had been inoculated with the placebo, or sterile water. I was in 1st Grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Scotia New York when I received my polio-pioneer pin in 1954.

Posted by Ken Patrick (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer. I was in second grade at Grant elementary school in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. I don't remember much more about the day other than standing in line with other classmates and rolling up my sleeve. I did receive a pin, but do not recall a card.

Posted by Steve Gold (not verified)

I was born in Chicago in July of 1947. I was in first grade in the 1953-54 school year, during which I was six years old, and in second grade in the 1953-54 school year, during which I was seven years old. I lived then in Skokie, Illinois, and went to Lincoln School ("Lower Lincoln," as grades K-6 were called; "Upper Lincoln" was 7th and 8th grades, in the same building).

I think I was a participant in the field trials - I have a memory of vaccinations in the school Multipurpose Room - but I wonder if the information still exists to confirm this. Can you tell me if an actual schedule of participating schools exists? Or were the field trials only carried out in individual physicians' offices, and my memories are of a different vaccination entirely?

Since my career has been in public health (MPH '75, University of Michigan School of Public Health) it would be particularly interesting to me to know if I participated in the field trials. Thanks for any guidance.

-- Steve Gold

Posted by Chris (not verified)


If you ever do find out a list of schools, I sure would like to see it! I too had the shots early on, along with my classmates! Later the sugar cubes. This was all back in the 50's like everyone else here. I chuckled at one entry that said the shots didn't hurt. They made your arm ache for days. After the first round, we children discovered that if we held our arms in the air for a period of time later, they didn't ache so much. I was told that I was a Polio Pioneer; but don't ever remember a card or a pin. I would be curious to see if my school, Wyman School in Winchester MA was on that list!

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

According to this article from 2003 in the Pittsburgh Gazette (http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2003/08/19/Finding-the-polio-pioneers/stories/200308190031 ), Rotary made a list of participating schools using University of Michigan files. The link listed in the article no longer works, but I imagine that someone could contact Rotary to find out if they'd share the list.
Karie Youngdahl
Director, historyofvaccines.org

Posted by Nancy Sanger (not verified)

I was in 2nd grade in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I was a Polio Pioneer. I still have the card, but not the pin. I'm sure my mother let me wear it and I lost is somewhere. What I remember most about the shot was being very proud that I hadn't cried. I had the shot with my classmates, but it was my pediatrician giving the shot and he was so good! I don't know if my parents ever knew if I got the vaccine or the placebo. If they did, they never told me. In any case, I knew it was a wonderful thing that was going to save lots of kids. I remember how scared we all were; we couldn't go to the swimming pool or the movies because we might get polio. Thank God for Jonas Salk and the brave people he worked with and for all the parents who were willing to take the chance. As a mom and now a grandmother, I'm not sure I could have done it.

Posted by Toby G (not verified)

Just saw Dr Salk's 100th b/d today and had to write.
To answer Wanda Douglas comment about the scar, I think you are talking about the Smallpox Vaccine which was discontinued about 1972.
I too was a polio pioneer in Corpus Christi, TXin 1953-1954 School year. LAter the polio vaccine was given orally on sugar cubes, that was the Sabin Live attenuated virus, which was discontinued and the IPV (Salk) is now being given again. Probably because the live virus was excreted in stool, polio being an Enterovirus and susceptible persons, namely AIDS patients were also becoming infected with polio. Also the vaccine had to be frozen until administered, and storage became a problem especially in 3rd world countries, not to mention that at times the frozen vaccines were left out on delivery docks and became weakened and when given would not give desired results.
Happy Birthday Dr Salk

Posted by Lillian Irvin Snider (not verified)

I was in the 2nd grade at North Warren High School , in Smiths Grove, Ky in 1954. I had the vaccine. It was about 24 hours later that I started screaming that I couldnt move. Dr Helm was the town doctor and he came to the house and sit up with me all nite. I don't remember how long it lasted, but I got over it. I recently had a Shingles shot and had a very severe reaction. Maybe my immune system just doesn't like any live virsus put in my blood stream.

Posted by john stewart (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in 1954; I was in first grade at Johnson elementary school in Cedar Rapids, IA. I received a pin and card, I have neither now. I got the true vaccine first time round. because everyone got the vaccine i took for granted the singularity of being a test subject. i am glad my parents gave permission.

Posted by Barry Clark (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer when I was 7 years old at the Roosevelt School in Port Chester New York.

Can remember standing in line with all my classmates and receiving a Polio vaccination. For whatever reason I still have the "Polio Pioneer Certificate of Membership" received from The National Foundation For Infantile

Little did we know the effect this trial would have on the entire world.

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

I received this from a writer who did not want her/his name used.

Not even sure if I got a pin or a certificate – it’s been so long I don’t remember. It was in elementary school in the 1950’s. I was in a group at Lincoln School in the west Rattlesnake Valley or possibly Prescott Elementary in town (where they moved us in about 5th grade). Lincoln, long closed, was a three-room Craftsman-style school with all 8 grades in three classrooms. It was learning heaven – when we finished our assignments in one grade, we could listen in on what the older kids were being taught. I think Prescott has closed too.

I wasn’t crazy about the idea of getting vaccinated but my mother was an RN who served in Europe in WWII. She had rotated through public health during her training and felt strongly, from seeing victims “up close and personal,” that the dangers of contracting polio were far greater than any dangers that might be associated with the vaccine.

I’m 68 now and have never suffered any ill effects. It hurt like any other shot but I don’t remember any problems.

One little girl would faint (she waited until we got back) to class but she always recovered promptly. Everyone thought she was just being a drama queen. I’d love to know if SHE had any lasting effects from the shots since she seemed like such a delicate little flower. We always thought it was an act but, in retrospect, maybe she had been a sickly child to begin with.

In any case, the current flap over vaccination just blows my mind. I’m here today and reasonably healthy in large part because I was vaccinated for everything from soup to nuts. Other kids weren’t so lucky. Jonas Salk was a saint in my humble opinion.

Posted by Judi (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in 1954. Second grade St Johns Catholic School in Monroe, Michigan. I had a card but it has disappeared over the years. In 1955, I discovered I was in the control group and had all the shots over again. I remember lining up in the cafeteria in alphabectical order. The boy in front of me fainted every time he saw the needle! After each shot we were given a big lollipop. The shots never bothered me at all.

People today may not realize how terrified we were of polio at that time. I remember forced naps in the summertime so we wouldn't get overtired and therefore more susceptable to the disease. We were not allowed to swim in public pools or even the lake.

I also remember my best friend's father (they lived across the street) coming down with polio the year before the vaccine. He spent many months in a iron lung and the rest of his life a quadriplegic. Three (or six) shots seemed like a good deal to me!

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer along with my entire class of second-graders in Port Edwards, Wisconsin, in 1954. We were bussed to the elementary school in the next town to get the shots. I don't remember getting a card, but I still have my pin. I dug it out this week after visiting Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR and so many other polio patients were treated. Made me proud I had a small part in stopping so much suffering.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I was one of the Polio Pioneer kids receiving the vaccine in 1953 or 1954 in Springfield, Missouri. We were taken by bus to the Shrine Mosque for the vaccine and later given ice cream. Shortly after the vaccine I became sick and couldn't walk. My parents were afraid I had contracted Polio but after seeing the doctor I was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever. I am so proud that my parents chose to let me be a part of the study. That was very brave on their part. We had a Polio cottage and a crippled children's wing in one of our hospitals. Polio was to be feared by many children and parents. Many adults my age
now have Post Polio Syndrome as a lasting result of contracting Polio.

Posted by Lee Reinhartsen (not verified)

I recall the day at PS 8 Staten Island, NY because I was scared of getting the shot. I don't know if I received the placebo or not. Today, I live in Mission Viejo, Calif., not far from the Salk Institute in La Jolla. As this current debate over vaccines rages, I thank God for my mother's common sense and Dr. Salk.

Posted by R. Denison (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer and received the series of shots and the pin when I was 8 years old at Dryden Elementary School in Westbury, Long Island, New York in 1954. Prior to the development of the vaccine my parents took me and my two brothers to Michigan in the summers to get us away from the risk of polio that had attacked several children in our town, including one of my friends.

My two brothers and I received the actual vaccine and did not have to repeat the shots. However, we were thrilled to find out that the nearby bully, a boy who we feared and hated, got the placebo and had to go through all the shots again! Oh, the joy!

I am so thankful that my parents never hesitated when asked to have their children participate in the trial.

Posted by Mary Summers (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer at Forest Glen School in Glen Ellyn, IL. I don't have a pin or card, just my memories that I got the real shot. There was a boy in my class that had polio before the field test and he came back to school without adverse effects. We were all very brave and thinking of him even though the shot was painful.

Posted by Mick Galyean (not verified)

I was 6 years old and in the first grade at Osage Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seems like some old kids (sixth graders) who worked in the office came and got me and the others and took us to the cafeteria for our shots. Guess we were like puppies going to the vet for the first time as we didn't know or care where we were going. However, soon we were aware of the situation and our different personalities kicked in. Most of us just stood there in silence, but I do remember the girl in front of me crying and fighting the nurses and the needle breaking off in her arm. It was a big deal and the nurses kept yelling at her to hold still so it wouldn't happen again. On the inside I was crying and fighting twice as hard as the girl, but my six year old macho wouldn't allow me to do anything except stand still and follow orders. As I remember it, at intervals of like 2-3 weeks, we received two more shots. Question to you other Polio Pioneers out there: I remember blood being drawn from us a couple of weeks following the shots. Does anyone else remember that? I received a card and a pin, but like most of us, it's long gone now.

Posted by Judy "Sam" Bro… (not verified)

I had both the shot and the sugar cube at Faxon Elementary School, in Kansas City, Missouri. I remember how proud my mother was that I was a "Polio Pioneer". I had both the card and the pin. I think it was in 1954 when I received them, and not certain of the year, or if they were given the same year. I remember as a child, I complained a great deal about my legs hurting, and my mother was concerned that I had polio because of the leg pains. I don't know if I had leg pain before or after the shot.

As an adult, I have had leg and body pain for many years. After being tested for MS and then being told I have Fibromyalgia, I have learned to just deal with the pain and weakness I have. I recently had a hip replacement, and I am pain free in the area of the implant, however, I have a huge amount of muscle loss and pain in my legs due to my inability to be active prior to and after the replacement. I'm now in physical therapy to help build up my leg muscles which are extremely weak. Whether this is related to the polio vaccine or not, I truly don't know. I have often wondered throughout the years if I have post polio syndrome due to the significant muscle loss I have.

Posted by Theresa Gargano (not verified)

I don't mean to come off rude in any way but it bothers me to no end to see this blof of comments. I guess being a polio victim doesn't make me special in Amy way as you lucky polio card holders. I wore braces as a child and now have post-polio Symdrome which has no cure other and is constantly confused with fibromyalgia. I was given so many pain pills as a child that all they do now is cause severe constipation. I was born May 12, 1954. Sorry for the interruption

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

My parents were very anxious to enroll my sister and me in this program. Dad's uncle and aunt spent a good portion of their childhood in side-by-side iron lungs. When the family visited them, I would feel so sorry about their leg braces and wheelchairs. His uncle died fairly young, but Aunt M. lived a long life, never letting her disability prevent her from completing college and becoming a librarian. I admired her very much, but I certainly did not want to suffer her plight. Through this perspective, the shot didn't hurt a bit.

We attended Newfield Elementary in Stamford, CT. I was eight, and my sister was six. I remember being lined up in the hallway for the shot. We were also given the sugar cubes, probably the next year. There was a joyous celebration when we got our Polio Pioneer pins.

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