Polio Pioneers Tell Their Stories

January 14, 2011 Anonymous

Card from the 1954 Poliovirus Vaccine TrialHistory of Vaccines blog readers have been sending us their recollections from the landmark 1954 trial of Jonas Salk’s inactivated poliovirus vaccine. We had posted several of their stories to our blog as comments on an earlier blog post, but they disappeared in a transition to our new website.

Recently, a kind blog reader saw our request for a photograph of a Polio Pioneer card. So we’re using this as an opportunity to post the photo and assemble the recollections of the Polio Pioneers and polio survivors who have written to us. Clearly, they all have vivid memories of their part in the trial, and most look back with pride on their contribution.

Mrs. K___ sent us a photo of the card (reproduced here) marking her participation in the trial. As Mrs. K____ wrote, "I remember lining up to get the shots. I thought I was in kindergarten, but it turns out I was probably in 1st grade. There were 2 lines. Some of the children got the real vaccine, and some got the placebo (we thought it was water). There was a series of three, so we always had to go on the line we were sent to. After the test was over our parents were told who had gottten the real vaccine and who had gotten the placebo. Lucky for me I had gotten the real because the children that did not get the real had to get the shots all over again. I was glad I didn't have to go through it again.” And, also from Mrs. K____, a bit later: “As I recall now, I remember there were three rows.  I just remembered the two rows because I wouldn't have had any thought of what the children in the third row had gotten (or not), so I just remembered the two rows. Now that I saw the picture, from Kansas, on your website, that was exactly what it was like.”

Indeed, Mrs. K____’s memories are probably correct: kindergartners were not enrolled in the trial. Children in grades 1-3 were included: in some communities, first graders received the injections, and in others, children in all three grades were vaccinated.

Mrs. K____ participated in the trial in Queens, New York, and was obviously enrolled in one of the vaccinated/placebo parts of the trial. (In some areas, community members objected to employing a control group that received injected placebos. Rather, these communities established observed control groups of children who did not receive any type of injection and who were simply observed for signs of polio infection.)

From David M. Oshinsky’s excellent Polio: An American Story (Oxford University Press, 2005), the table below shows the enrollment and number of paralytic polio cases in the different parts of the trial.

Participants in the 1954 Poliovirus Vaccine Trial, from Oshinsky DM, Polio

Below are the recollections of other Polio Pioneers and polio survivors, submitted via blog comment or emailed to us.

Mrs. S___:  “I am a Polio Pioneer. I believe my entire third grade class at Boyd Elementary in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was invited to participate. Dad still has my card and maybe the pin. I think my mother, who was very afraid of the possibility of getting polio, was not unlike other mothers at that time. My family welcomed my chance to participate and considered me a hero. I didn't appreciate the importance at the time, but realized it as time passed and Mother continued to talk about it with pride.”

Mrs. T____: My name is Sharon M. T___, and I was a Polio Pioneer in 1954. I grew up in Norfolk,VA, and attended Crossroads Elem.

All of these years I have wondered the long term effects of the vaccine.  My mother was very active at my school, so she also took the vaccine.  She stated that if I was involved, then she should also receive the vaccine.  She had always kept the card and button in a safe place, so now they are still in excellent condition.”

Another Mrs. K____: I was a Polio Pioneer.  I was probably eight or nine at the time I participated in the program.  I don’t have a Polio Pioneer card, but there’s a possibility I still have the pin.

Not too long ago my sister told me how surprised she was that my parents allowed me to have the vaccine.  I know now there was controversy at the time whether it would be safe.  I guess I will never know if I got the anti-polio serum or the placebo.  I remember taking a bus from our school, Osolo Elementary School, Elkhart, Indiana, and going to another school for the shots.  I remember standing in really long lines and the shots hurt.

Mrs. G____: I was a polio pioneer in 1954 in Levittown, Long Island, NY.  I believe it was Summit Lane School where we congregated to be immunized with either the placebo or the true serum.  I contracted polio in August of 1952, I believe I was one of the first in Nassau County.  Shortly after, my sister Joanne H____, fell victim to it as well.  We fortunately had non-paralytic polio and neither, outside of a slight swing to my left foot, had any lasting effects.  I am now 63 years old; my sister is 60.  I remember seeing a card where it stated that I had the actual vaccine but cannot say where it might be today.  I was wondering if there are any archives where I can look up to see if it’s documented.

Mr. O___: ... I am 58. I contracted polio at the age of three in 1955. I was paralyzed from the waist down for the better part of 1.5 years before I recovered without permanent paralysis. My parents and grandparents along with all of my aunts and uncles are deceased, although my family and extended family played a huge role in my eventual healing. I know that I was the subject of an article in either the Plain Dealer and or Cleveland Press. I do remember several trips to University Hospitals and sort of remember a few stints in the iron lung.

Thank you, all, for sharing your memories of this important vaccine trial, and your memories of surviving polio, with us.

For more information on the Salk trial, see our article The Scientific Method in Vaccine History. Additionally, University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics offers detailed information on the trial.


Posted by sallywi (not verified)

My Polio Pioneer card is dated 6/2/54 and was I was honored to participate in the Polio Pioneer. I have always kept my card in a safe place.

We lived in a small farming town outside of Wapato, Washington and everyone parent in our school volunteered us to stand in line and receive shots to stop Polio in the valley.

Many of my friends were crippled from Polio before the test began and continue to suffer to this day.

Others came down with Polio but less sever during the tests. We found out after that my group was not receiving the vaccine.

Posted by Charles Leicht (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer in Glen Ellyn, Illinois who received the placebo. After the first trial, I recall we waited a year or so for scientists to ascertain whether the vaccine was effective or not.

Once the Salk vaccine was deemed effective, those of us who got the placebo were offered the three real shots. After the first shot, I believe there was a small area which received a shipment of vaccine in which the virus was not sufficiently suppressed, and some children contracted polio. My father pulled me immediately from the program, and I didn't get my last two shots until five years later, when my parents were certain the vaccine was safe.

As small children, most of us were afraid of the trial. I remember kids being dragged into the school kitchen for the shot, while others screamed, cried, vommited, and passed out.

I have my polio pioneer card and pin in a safe deposit box. I am proud to have participated with so many others my age in being part of ending this vicious disease, which had affected so many children our age, including to this day, one of my best friends.

Charles Leicht
Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin

Posted by staff2 (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer. My third grade class at Morley School in West
Hartford Connecticut participated in the trial. I seem to remember that
eventually we were given three vaccinations. I was at the end of the
line, since my name starts with 'Z', and I anxiously watched my
classmates leaving the nurse's office holding the tops of their arms as
though they were in great pain. I received a polio pioneer card, kept it
in a cigar box with my collection of Davy Crockett cards, my big inch
land company deed and a wonderful spinthariscope ring in which I could
see sparks in the dark; but somehow I lost it all. Later we were given
the oral vaccine on sugar cubes.

Best wishes,
Arnold Zuboff

Posted by Barbara J Alha… (not verified)

At nine years old, I participated as a polio pioneer in the gymnasium clinic located at PS #52 Frank Fowler Dow Elementary School, Rochester, NY.
My mother, Elizabeth Achen Alhart encouraged me to be a pioneer and impressed upon me the importance of being part of a scientific study to find a cure for a terrible disease; a disease that had stricken an age mate of mine who was in my Sunday school class at church.
Mom explained that some of us would receive shots of vaccine and some of us would receive water. I prayed this experiment would work and that I would get the vaccine. So when I later learned that it was successful and that I got the real vaccine, I was quite relieved.
I am happy to say I was a polio pioneer and found this to be one of life's proudest moments.

Posted by Pat (not verified)

I believe I was in third grade at PS 12 on Staten Island. I remember vaguely being kind of afraid of shots but later I was very happy to learn that I had gotten the real thing and didn't need any more shots. I do not have the certificate but I still have the pin. My best friend got the placebo. I remember feeling badly for her. I do not remember anyone getting polio but it was a scary word as a child.

Posted by Richard Henry (not verified)

I was going to Christian Clemens elementary school in Mt. Clemens, Michigan when in 1954 we also became polio pioneers. I vividly remember having classmates that came down with this horrible disease. I am happy and proud to have been a part of this program that wiped out polio as we knew it. Thank you science.

Posted by DGG (not verified)

I was in 1st grade at PS120 in Queens county NY when I became a Polio Pioneer. I received a placebo; my brother, in the second grade, received the real vaccine. I still have my Polio Pioneer card.

Posted by Laura Lydecker (not verified)

I have a memory lining up on day in 'senior kindergarten' at North Shore County Day in Winnetka, Illinois in 1954. A doctor with was sitting at a table and we were to receive shots. We were crying. The doctor looked very much like Jonas Salk himself. The bitter irony for me was that I has already had polio the previous summer, but for years they thought there were different forms.

You say that only grades 1-3 were included. Any insight into this event?

Posted by Shasron Gunaso… (not verified)

I saw an exhibit at Indiana Historical Society of development of polio vaccine. I remembered being lined at school but I don't recall being told what it was all about. It upset me more not being told than getting the shot. Until today it had not occurred to me that it might have been a clinical trial. How can I find out if my school (Fall Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis)was a trial site? I'm not upset. Just curious. Thanks.
Sharon G. P.

Posted by Barbara Burdette (not verified)

I was a polio pioneer and didn't realize the impact and importance of my perticipation. My parents were afraid as were others during that time. I was a student at Pt. Harmony Elementary in Kanawha county in West Virginia. It was so exciting for us when we would get on a school bus and ride to Nitro High School. We were line up with kids from several schools and our upper arm was rubbed with what I later learned was Iodine then given the vaccination. We were given a series of I think three inocolations with the last one given after school was out for the summer. They had a picnic for all the students and our parents were with us. I remember my mother being with me that day. I recieved a card and a button pin. I kept it for years. I got wet some how about 5 years ago and I reluctantly let it go. It was always valuable to me.

Posted by Lisa Courtis (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer in 1954, when I was 6. I don't remember that it was an option; our northern Virginia class was simply sent to get the shots, then we had ice cream afterwards. There was a week or so between each of the the 3 shots, and after the third shot I didn't feel good. I still remember the teacher throwing my peach ice cream cone into the woods. It was 30 years or so before I could eat peach ice cream again.

I shared the rest of my school days with polio survivors, and I knew that if it had not been for the Pioneer vaccine, I might be limping along with them... or be dead. Polio was not a long-ago disease then; it could bite anyone, anytime. I felt SO VERY lucky to have been one of the kids to test the new vaccine, so I knew I would not be crippled. I don't know how to express my relief and that of my parents, when I got the Polio vaccine!

Posted by Shirley Pott (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Sifton School in Camrose, Alberta, Canada. My card is dated September 18, 1954. I still have my button, too.

I must have been given the placebo as I was diagnosed with polio in late August of 1955. Fortunately, I had a mild form and therefore was not paralyzed. Other children in my school were not so fortunate and were left with lasting disabilities.

I am still proud to have taken part in such an important test and hope that the disease will finally be eradicated worldwide.

Posted by Johanna Roccanova (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer when I was in the fourth grade at P.S. 97 in Brooklyn, New York. I remember my mother telling me what the letter that was sent home was about. I cried when she told me she would sign the consent form. I was so afraid of injections! We found out later that I had received the vaccine and did not have to go through the ordeal again. While I am proud that I was a part of the study that wiped out polio, I would not allow a child of mine to be a test subject for any drug. I guess times were different then and, for the most part, fear of polio and a relatively uninformed population allowed it to happen.

Posted by Johanna Roccanova (not verified)

I guess it must have been third grade, not fourth.

Posted by Melanie Mariner (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer from Syracuse, New York (Danforth Elementary). I remember everyone lining up to get the shot. I was VERY used to shots. I recall all this screaming and crying and wondering what their problem was, it was only a shot. I also remember some of my friends had relatives in iron lungs usually on the 1st floor. Even as little kids we were very aware of polio. Thank You Dr. Salk.

Posted by Ladd Chase (not verified)

I had polio in 1948 and was a polio pioneer at that time, six years before the time everyone is talking about. I still have my card and badge somewhere.

Posted by KM (not verified)

I was a Polio Pioneer at Calvin Coolidge School in Binghamton, NY. I received the vaccine in 1954; blood tests were also done periodically. A few years later we all got a 'sugar cube' booster (?) Thank you, Dr. Salk and co.!!!

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