Banding together to conquer polio


Charles F. Bryan Jr. |

Ask almost anyone 60 years and older about polio, and inevitably you will stir up memories of seeing its victims lying encased in iron lungs that emitted deep, rhythmic, mechanical breaths every few seconds. Two of my high school teachers were confined to wheelchairs, victims of polio when they were young. One summer, public health officials closed the municipal swimming pool in my hometown, deeming it too risky for spreading the disease.
Many of us remember how the American public rallied and came together to fight polio: How school children contributed millions of dollars in dimes in what would be the first truly national fundraising campaign. How Hollywood celebrities such as Eddy Cantor, Bing Crosby, and Jack Benny took on the disease as their cause célèbre.

The combination of millions of people giving their dimes, volunteering, and working in private-public partnerships to fight a common enemy led to a medical breakthrough that saved countless people from a crippling disease and possible death.

Poliomyelitis has been around for thousands of years, but it was not recognized as a distinct disease until the late 18th century. A virus that spreads among people by fecal matter or saliva found in food or water, it leaves its victims fully or partially paralyzed — and sometimes dead. Severe breathing problems often accompany polio.

Medical scientists finally isolated and identified the virus in 1908, a time when doctors became increasingly concerned about major outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. The number of polio cases rose dramatically in the 20th century, reaching a peak in the years following World War II.


President Franklin Roosevelt, who was stricken with polio as an adult, became its most visible symbol, although he tried to hide its consequences from the public. On the other hand, because most of its victims were young, especially the very young, and the publicity polio generated, it became the most visible childhood disease of the century.

Polio reached epidemic levels in the early 1950s. In 1950 alone, more than 33,000 Americans, half of whom were age 10 or younger, contracted the disease. Wytheville in southwest Virginia gained national attention when polio struck it with a vengeance, resulting in nearly 200 cases.

The following year, the number of cases nationwide continued to rise, as did the public clamor for a solution. Americans then began to band together, much as they had during World War II. Government agencies on all levels joined forces with non-government organizations to combat the disease.

Volunteers by the millions offered their assistance. Medical scientists sprang into action when federal funding, along with corporate and private philanthropy, began to flow into research institutes, led by the March of Dimes.

Soon an intense rivalry developed between the two leading polio scientists — Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Both men were raised in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey respectively. Both finished medical school preferring the challenges of medical research rather than the practice of medicine.

During World War II, Salk started work in virology, and in 1947 began studying polio at the University of Pittsburgh, where he concentrated on developing a vaccine against the disease. Because of the risks surrounding the use of live virus, “killed virus” vaccines delivered by injections would be safer and more effective.

Established researchers, however, rejected Salk’s idea and his methods. Leading the opposition was Sabin, who believed that an oral vaccine would destroy the virus in the intestines and prevent it from entering the blood stream.

The two rivals were unrelenting in their search for a “magic bullet,” but Salk introduced his vaccine first when he began field trials at an elementary school in McLean, Virginia, in April 1954. With these early experiments deemed a success, more than two million children received Salk vaccines by the end of the year. Within the next few years, millions more young people in the U.S. lined up for the vaccine, and the number of polio diagnoses plummeted.

In the meantime, Sabin first tested his oral vaccine in Europe in 1957. Delivered in sugar cubes, easily administered, and inexpensive, it became the standard vaccine around the world. Its use, however, was severely limited in the U.S. for several years after a federal advisory panel determined that it was still too risky.

Although Jonas Salk is credited with ending polio because his inoculation was the first to be administered to the public, Sabin’s vaccine actually was used on a greater worldwide scale and is the preferred preventative treatment for polio today.


Thanks to both vaccines, the U.S. was declared polio-free in 1979. Through the efforts of Rotary International, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio was reduced 99 percent globally by 1988.

The international effort to rid the world of polio was set back in 2011 when the CIA orchestrated a fake polio clinic in Pakistan in an effort to capture Osama bin Laden. Since then, polio workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been distrusted, and suicide bombers have murdered more than a dozen. Sadly, they are the only two countries on Earth where the disease continues to claim victims.

In the U.S., reminders of polio can be observed almost anywhere. John Hager, former lieutenant governor of Virginia, has been confined to a wheelchair since contracting the disease when he was in his early 30s. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he has refused to let polio prevent him from continuing an active and productive life.

Gordon Kerby of Richmond, who grew up in Waynesboro, has no memory of life without polio. He was only 2 and a half years old when he and his seven-month old brother were diagnosed. Kerby was confined to an iron lung for five years, but thanks to physicians and physical therapists at the Medical College of Virginia, he learned how to breathe on his own, to walk with braces on his legs, and eventually ride a bicycle.

Kerby went on to become a respected environmental engineer, get married, and become a competitive bicycle rider. In recent years, however, he has suffered from post-polio syndrome, a condition that brings back many of the disease’s manifestations 30 and 40 years later. Unable to walk very far, he relies on a motorized scooter to get around.

The story of the fight against polio reveals a time in our history when Americans came together to conquer a terrible disease. The combination of millions of people giving their dimes, volunteering, and working in private-public partnerships to fight a common enemy led to a medical breakthrough that saved countless people from a crippling disease and possible death.

Unfortunately, national unity, even facing a dangerous common enemy, has been difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to sustain in today’s fractious political and social environment. If the current concerns over the zika virus were to reach the same level as they did for polio, would we as a nation respond as rapidly and effectively as we did in the 1950s? I wonder.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., president emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author of “Imperfect Past: History in a New Light,” which is a compilation of all but his most recent Times-Dispatch essays. Contact him at

Young Gordon Kerby of Waynesboro was treated in an iron lung at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond as he recovered from polio in 1948.

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