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 Susan (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Cassidy Elementary School in Lexington, KY, and received the little pin so many fondly remember, though I have no memory of receiving a card. My classmates and I were lined up alphabetically by our last names, and I envied those whose names fell near the end of the alphabet (mine was near the front of the alphabet, and I did not appreciate the concept of getting it over with fast).

The shots were given by a nurse, and I seem to recall that the same needle was used for all of us, with it being cleaned with alcohol between shots. It must have been quite dull after being used on over 30 children (big class size; baby boom era).

This site and the various comments have clarified something for me: several months or perhaps even a year later, my mother told me that it had been discovered that there was something wrong with the original three experimental polio shots: they weren't strong enough, and I would have to have the shots all over again, this time at the office of my pediatrician, the much-loved and highly respected Dr. Robert Warfield.

I didn't like that idea at all, and wound up being bribed into repeating the shots - which added up to a total of six shots - all over again though the promise of a surprise each time afterwards, which turned out to be inexpensive toy. One was a toy rabbit which hopped realistically after being wound up - I think I still have it somewhere. Evidently I must have been given the actual polio shots near Easter, probably in 1955. I don't recall what time of the year the original Polio Pioneer project took place. I suppose the selection of children to receive the placebo was done randomly - I was the youngest child in my class, with a late December birthday, although I would have been in third grade that year.

About a year later, just prior to starting fourth grade, I became very ill while visiting my grandmother in rural Virginia - fever 105, day and night for a week, chills, faintness ( I actually did faint at one point), respiratory infection, aches and pains, digestive disorders - and the doctor, who came twice a day, told my parents it might be non-paralytic polio. He ran every test he could and gave me shots of penicillin daily. But a solid diagnosis was never confirmed. I still wonder...I did recover, but it lasted three weeks and left me five pounds lighter and oddly, only wanting to drink milk and eat French bread as I began to recover. Craving carbohydrates, for some reason...

Then a couple of years later, I received the sugar cube(s?), again from Dr. Warfield and a vast improvement in my view. No toy bunnies accompanied this form of inoculation, though!

Thanks for helping me realize that I must have received the placebo initially. Somehow, it never occurred to me previously...

Posted by Becky Beckwith (not verified)

My sister in law and I had been stricken with polio in the year of 1956 in Passaic New Jersey

Posted by Chip Sharpe (not verified)

In 2nd grade at Gillespie School in Greensboro NC in 1954, I entered the gym/auditorium on the day of the "Salk vaccine" with a sense of purpose. My parents and the parents of my cousins and of my other friends had been watching us carefully, calling us inside if they feared we were becoming overheated and warning us against extreme exertion. Somehow my mother had communicated to me that today would be important. I may have felt a bit of pride in being part of this group.
Later, when I thought back to how they had laid out pads and blankets on the floor and told us to lie quietly for thirty minutes to see if we were going to have a bad reaction, I marveled that we were being the "Guinea pigs".
I was given a little, solid metal pin with a bendable tab for clamping onto a pocket or lapel. It said, "Polio Pioneer". I think it was blue and may have measured ¾ inch across. I wish I knew where that is now.

Posted by Chip Sharpe (not verified)

In 2nd grade at Gillespie School in Greensboro NC in 1954, I entered the gym/auditorium on the day of the "Salk vaccine" with a sense of purpose. My parents and the parents of my cousins and of my other friends had been watching us carefully, calling us inside if they feared we were becoming overheated and warning us against extreme exertion. Somehow my mother had communicated to me that today would be important. I may have felt a bit of pride in being part of this group.
Later, when I thought back to how they had laid out pads and blankets on the floor and told us to lie quietly for thirty minutes to see if we were going to have a bad reaction, I marveled that we were being the "Guinea pigs".
I was given a little, solid metal pin with a bendable tab for clamping onto a pocket or lapel. It said, "Polio Pioneer". I think it was blue and may have measured ¾ inch across. I wish I knew where that is now.

Posted by Chris KnaggsAn… (not verified)

This I am sharing on behalf of my friend,Nick Rautenbach.
He was diagnosed,in 1945,aged +- 3 1/2 with polio affecting the entire left side of his body,head to toes.
He was given less than a week to live.
Doctor Verkuil,of the Roodepoort Discovery Hospital,close to Johannesburg in South Africa,in desperation,asked to experiment with Nick,so Dr.Verkuil must have been somewhere in the frontline of the scientists looking for clues to causes and cures/treatment.In 1945 it was thought that the illness was caused by flies or contaminated water.

This tiny little tyke remembers then how terrified he was as he was placed in an iron lung from which he was not to emerge until he was about 7 years old.Most of the earlier treatment he was told of by his mother.
Nick's buddy,of the same age,living next door,got polio of the leg and ore a leg brace for the rest of his life.

Nick,himself emerged from the hospital all but cured,regarded as miraculous at the time and probably was.
However,at face value he seemed to have totally recovered but was left with a few odd defects;

1.He has never been able to write,there appeared to be a co-ordination problem.Strangely,he is today a qualified dental technician,a gifted graphic artist.Incidentally all his school exams were verbally conducted,successfully.
2.He was never able to run after his recovery,but,today,at 73,he is still a keen surfer and fisherman.
3.He has mild,hardly noticeable,left facial and throat paralysis resulting in him having to eat very slowly and further,he swallows his tongue,causing suffocation.Water dripped down the throat,asap,has,so far resolved the issue.

Other than the above,he is an active and very healthy man.

The purpose of this e-mail is to conduct research,specifically in the South African context,but not exclusively.Another idea is to share Nicks'good fortune and find other parties who had good cures,in the 1940.
For what it is worth,Polio research was privately sponsored,the SA government only getting involved in the late 40's.

Nick was issued with a certificate;
Johannesburg 1949,stating that his name;N.A.Rautenbach had appeared in the "Poliomyelitis Research Foundation".

We are keen to find out the following;
a.Was there a worldwide co-ordinated effort in research and what role did South Africans play ?
b.How did the doctors cure Nick ? What method/s ?
c.Was Nicks' recovery somewhat unique for the period.
d.Maybe survivors,from about this period,can shed some light on out enquiries.
e.What,if any information,is available on Dr.Verkuil - don't even know if the spelling/pronunciation of his name is correct - ?
Whatever,Dr.Verkuil must be regarded as a hero in the struggle against polio.For many years,after Nick was released from hospital,Dr.Verkuil visited him to monitor his health (I imagine).

Whatever the outcome of this exercise we hope this has some merit and that it will illicit some worthy response.
Thanking you,
Chris Knaggs
Durban,South Africa. 2015

Posted by Ansley (not verified)

Hello! I have a question that I hope will be answered promptly, as it is for an upcoming project.
My grandmother said she had the polio vaccine, but not with a shot. She is 73 years old. She says they scratched her with a sharp tool in a criss- cross formation just like what the small pox vaccination was described as and it left a visible dime to quarter sized scar. So is she just confusing that with the Small Pox or did they actually have a method like that to administer the Polio Vaccine? Thank you for taking your time to read this and helping me through any answers you care to give. Again, Thank you so much!

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Hi, Ansley, your grandmother is probably remembering the smallpox vaccine. The inactivated polio vaccine was and is given as an intramuscular injection. It would not have left a scar.
Karie Youngdahl

Posted by Arlene Cohen (not verified)

I lived in Edgewater NJ and attended George Washington Grammer School. I remember being a pioneer of the Salk Polio Vacine.I remberember getting a little white cup and lining up with the other kids outside in the play yard to get it. I also remember getting a card saying I was a Pioneer..I am now 69 years old.

Posted by Syd Pauley (not verified)

I am a Polio Pioneer and still have my card dated 6-54. I was 9 years old. I lived with my parents in a coal mining camp in Utah and I remember some of us got the vaccine and others didn't. Turns out I didn't get the real vaccine. My mother had Polio as a child and so she was very excited about the trial. I remember everyone was excited but I did not understand what it was about.

Syd Pauley

Posted by Sue Swihart Bastiani (not verified)

The more I think about it the less I remember! I was born Sept. 1947. I think it was at Toutle Lake School in Washington State about 3/4 grade that we were all lined up for our polio shot. I don't remember it being a trial but I was always a little oblivious. Ha Oddly, it was 4th grade that I too, like someone else who posted, came down with Rhuematic Fever and had to lie in bed for about six months. I took penicillin for 7 years after that! I always wondered if THAT was an experiment. My mother and most of her siblings (14 of them) came down with polio (her birthdate was 1909) as children, but only one brother suffered paralysis and that in one arm. Mother believed she had a deformity which led to difficulties in childbirth.

Posted by William D. Callen (not verified)

I was at Rice Elementary School in Elkhart Indiana, when I got mine. As I recall it was three shots, and then a "Booster" shot. Both Pin and Certificate are long gone now, but I am still proud that I was a participant. I believe I was eight years old at the time. God bless Jonas Salk!

Posted by Becky Mojica (not verified)

I was in the 1st grade at Davy Crockett Elementary School in San Antonio, TX. in 1954. I recall bringing home a permission slip for my parents to sign allowing me to receive the polio vaccine. We were bused to a nearby high school, I believe, where we lined up in a gym. I do not recall receiving any button or proof, but if we did, my mother probably saved it for a while. I never saw it. Strangely enough, it was discovered when I was 9 yr. old, bedridden w/ Rheumatic Fever, that I had probably had polio. I was taken to a doctor, Dr. Day, at Baptist Memorial Hospital in San Antonio, Tx., and eventually had a "corrective" leg surgery on one of my legs which was a tad shorter than the other. I was one of the lucky ones.

Posted by Patricia Gay (not verified)

I was also born in 1947 and had the Polio shot and later (about 5 or 6 yrs) miss a whole year of school because I got rheumatic fever. I spent 2 months in a hospital bed getting a penicilan shot 3X a day to recover. I now wonder if it had any connect with the Polio shot  would love to be friends with you on facebook we are both Polio Pioneers

Posted by Larry Binford (not verified)

I was a pioneer. In 1954 I was in the third grade at Bastian Elementary School in Houston Tx. I remember a large number of students lining up outside on the concrete all weather play slab during the school day and the shots being administered as the lines passed through the injection station. I do not remember the pins or certificates. It is unlikely they would have made it home with me if I received one. Like the others I remember a lot of angst from my parents every summer when polio season arrived. I am sure they gladly gave permission to participate in the trial. I do not remember receiving any more inoculations so I assume I received the vaccine. Several years later we all took the oral vaccine through another community mass vaccination drive.

Posted by gloria Klaschka (not verified)

In 1954 I was a fourth grade student at Allendale Public School in Allendale New Jersey when I became a polio pioneer. I don't remember ever getting a lollipop, ice cream or even a card, but I did get a Polio Pioneer Pin which I still have. However, I do remember that day as if it were yesterday as one class at a time was escorted into the home economics room by their teachers where Dr. Canning, the school's Doctor administered the vaccine. The school nurse was close by his side to assist the 'faint of heart'. I was unaware that there was a placebo so I am assuming I got the 'real deal' since I did not get a second shot.

Oh what a panic ran through our town when we learned that one faulty batch of vaccine caused a sudden outbreak of polio affecting about 200 kids. When my sister began running a low grade temperature (caused by a totally unrelated illness) our mother was sure she made the worse mistake of her life allowing us to receive the vaccine. In time a trust in the vaccine was established and when a oral vaccine was available the entire town turned out and gathered in the center of main street to get their sugar cubes.

In 1998 I had the distinct honor of meeting S Stewart Aiston, a former biochemist at Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River New York. When I learned he worked in the development of the Polio Vaccine with Dr. Jonas Salk I told him I that I was one of his "Guinea pigs"! We talked about how proud we were to have been a part of this moment in history.

Posted by Beverly Cameron (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in 1954 at Mass Fields School Quincy Ma. I got sick afterwards, was taken to boston Childrens Hospital but they said nothing was wrong. I now have Multiple chemical Sensitivities and unusual immune responses. I have been semi disabled my whole life but not on disability and face old age with a $500 social security benefit. My brother was also in the trial. He is totally disabled and on disability.

Posted by Jane Watson (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer from The Bronx, NY - I believe in 1952 or 1953. I was 7 or 8 years old.  I did receive the real vaccine. I remember my Mom checking  with our doctor who gave the okay to take the shot.  It was given in my school.  Back then, I had a friend who wore a brace on his leg from Polio.  Unfortunately, when we moved from The Bronx to Manhattan, my Mother threw my Polio Pioneer card away...so sad!  I am so proud to have been a part of medical history which eventually led to the end of the polio epidemic.

Posted by Peter Levitt (not verified)

They lined us up and marched us forward for the vaccine. We had enough proof of the disease in our Bronx neighborhood since we knew the children who had contracted polio already and saw some of the effects, so taking the shot was not a problem. But, I still can see the lines of kids in the gym of our elementary school, 1954.


Posted by Marg Gotwald (not verified)

I was in 2nd grade in 1954-55 and was one of the "guinea Pigs"  who received the polio shot...


Today I read this article...now I am wondering if I received that shot....so many of my baby boom generation seem to be dying at younger ages than our parents, due to cancer...now I wonder what exactly was in my shot..  My sweet husband died this past july at age 71 from a very aggressive soft tissue cancer...There is no cancer in his family...He was In Viet Nam, (agent orange exposure) but then he also got the polio vaccine around that time..


I was inoculated at St Joseph Elementary School on the 800 Block of East Princess St in York PA during the school year  1954-55.  


I Don't suppose anyone kept records, or do they?



Marg Gotwald....

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Dear Marg,

Thanks for your comment. The Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital Philadelphia has a fact sheet on the simian virus that contaminated early polio vaccines. It has an extensive list of references that show there is not likely to be a connection between human cancers and SV40 in vaccines. Additionally, regarding your comment that baby boomers are dying at younger ages than their parents: this statement is not supported by mortality data, which indicates that life expectancy has been increasing steadily since 1900 (and most likely before) (and with the exception of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic).


Karie Youngdahl

Posted by Vici Olsen (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer and remember standing in line at Carl Cozier School in Bellingham, WA. I don't have a card or pin, but I remember my mom talking about it when I was young. 

Posted by Mike dicesaro (not verified)

I was shot with a sort of force air gun in Houston Texas 1955ish

Posted by Leslie Holman-… (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Ashland Elementary in Denver Colorado, and -- if I recall correctly which I might not -- the only kid in my classroom to participate. I remember leaving my classroom and being joined in the hall by a few other kids from my floor, and walking down the silent hall to wherever it was we got our shots. I don't remember cards, but I do recall a little badge we wore. It was light tan with a brown drawing of a Conestoga wagon and the words "Polio Pioneer," and instead of a pin there was a little tab that folded over the edge of my collar to hold the badge in place. Like many of the other commenters, I was very proud to be involved. I got the real vaccine, it turned out.

And like so many others here, though I didn't understand about polio I remember the atmosphere of fear that closed the swimming pools and strung barriers around the lakes, and even closed some movie theaters.

Posted by Richard Binder (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer. On 26 April 1954, I and my first-grade classmates at Whittier Elementary School in Bozeman, Montana, lined up in the school gym, one at a time rolled up our sleeves (if we had sleeves), and took the first of three shots in the arm. I remember that the shots I got in that trial were the least painful shots I had ever received up to then. The blood draw that accompanied the shots was NOT among my least painful encounters with needles; the person drawing blood (in an office to one side of the gym) was unable to find a vein and so got nothing from me. My parents were notified during the following summer that I had received the real vaccine, not the placebo. Although I had never seen a person who had polio, I was pleased and proud to have been part of the trial.

Posted by Leslie Lewis (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in the spring of 1954 at Ardmore School, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The summer before had been a lonely one. Polio was raging through the city (something to do with untreated sewage being dumped into the Northwest Arm, where we swam, I believe). I wasn't allowed to go and play with any of my friends, and they were cooped up in their houses, too. I was in third grade, and we all hated the idea of getting a needle. But they told us that it might mean that we could play with our friends the next summer, so that made it better. And it worked. The next summer was nearly polio-free. 

I remember getting a button that said "I am a Polio Pioneer", but my family moved every few years and it disappeared. It's one of the very few things I'm sorry to have lost. 

Posted by Bob (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in 4th grade at Clinton Elementary School, Clinton,NY IN 1954. Fortunately I got the real vaccine and didn't get a second series like some of my classmates. I have my card and pin

Posted by Randy Silver (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in Dallas Texas. I am 71 now. I remember we were givin shots and sugar cubes at different times. I don't remember whether the shots or their sugar cubes came first. I just remember there was a kid on my block who had polio. It was still prevalent disease. I'm just so glad that I was part of the process and I'm still alive thank God.

Posted by Mary Chipley (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in the 2nd grade in Wichita Falls, TX, at Harrell Elementary. I remember how much the shots hurt and how good the suckers (on a loop) tasted. I am proud of my parents for giving permission for me to participate in the trial. I'm sure that it was an easy decisions as we were all terrified of the disease and knew someone whose child had been afflicted. I'm also deeply grateful to all of the scientists and medical folks who devoted themselves to protecting us. 

Posted by Sheran Farrell Scott (not verified)

I was a 1954 Polio Pioneer (Salk vaccine) in Huntington, WV, when I was in 2nd grade -- I had just had my 8th birthday earlier that month (I am now 71). My younger sister was not yet in school and didn't participate. I still have my pin, but until I read other comments, I didn't know about a card, nor did I know about placebo shots.  I do know I had a "booster" in the summer after the initial shot, and my younger sister also got the "booster".  Four or five years later, all the school children in Huntington, even those who'd had the Salk vaccine, were strongly encouraged to take the oral Sabine vaccine on the sugar cube...which I did. 

Posted by Cassandra Knight (not verified)

I got polio in 1955 and my Twin and other siblings did not get it. Did I receive the placebo? Have I suffered all my life and now I'm loosing mobility from having polio, because someone chose me to experiment on??? 

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