[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]
Following up my points about Jonas Salk in yesterday’s post, three ways to present and engage a fuller, more nuanced historical narrative of the polio vaccine.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember just how widespread and destructive polio remained well into the mid-20th century. If you’re like me, perhaps you associate it more with the first few decades of the 20th century, the era in which Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease for example. But the United States reported more than 25,000 annual cases of polio throughout the early 1950s, with 58,000 cases (and 3200 deaths) reported in 1952 alone. This wasn’t just a lingering medical issue or a vestige of earlier outbreaks; polio remained a full-fledged, annual epidemic (it struck with particular force every summer, it seems) in the same year that The Honeymooners debuted, 1955. (To put it another way, one that hits close to home in every sense: my parents were born in 1948, meaning that throughout their childhood, polio was a very real threat.) The collective efforts to develop a vaccine, that is, represented urgent work in response to a genuine and ongoing crisis.
I discussed those collective 1950s efforts yesterday, but it’s worth noting that they had really begun a couple decades earlier, to strikingly calamitous effects. Two different teams announced progress on a polio vaccine at the American Public Health Association meeting in November 1935, and both were attacked and denounced by their colleagues in extreme ways: Temple University researcher John Kolmer, whose attenuated vaccine had led to 5 deaths and 10 paralyses out of 10,000 child subjects, was publicly called a murderer after his presentation; New York Health Department researcher Maurice Brodie, whose formaldehyde-killed vaccine had apparently not led to any deaths (and was reported to be 88% effective at preventing subjects from getting polio), was immediately fired from his job and died tragically of a heart attack just three years later (at the age of 35). I have no doubt that these early vaccines weren’t yet effective or safe enough, but the virulent attacks on these researchers (by colleagues who should have been sympathetic to their efforts, not by fear-mongering media voices or the like) makes clear that the fears of vaccines were in key ways at least as substantial as those of this ongoing, deadly epidemic.
Nearly two decades later, Enders, Salk, and the other researchers, scientists, and physicians about whom I wrote yesterday did develop safe and effective polio vaccines, helping largely eradicate the disease by the early 1960s. But the vaccines themselves weren’t enough to effect that change—it took extensive campaigns to convince the public of the safety and efficacy of those vaccines, campaigns that relied, as this excellent recent Scientific American article traces, on the support (and very public vaccinations) of celebrities like Elvis Presley. As that article notes, we are of course in the midst of our prominent, public push for vaccinations (about which more in a couple days), so we could learn a lot from the hugely successful (if quite multi-decade and fraught) history of the polio vaccine.
Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?