From the Historian: A different time, a different vaccine

Anita Mance

Since the coronavirus first arrived in our country a year ago, many people have made comparisons to the flu epidemic of 1918. Yet, 65 years ago, another virus caused panic — poliomyelitis. To those of us in elementary school in the early 1950s, this was a scary time. Pictures on TV news broadcasts and in magazines and newspapers showed children trying to walk with metal braces, and in hospitals trying to breathe in a machine called an “iron lung.” We also saw firsthand family members of our friends stricken with the disease. 

We learned that poliomyelitis was an infectious disease causing permanent or temporary paralysis by affecting the nervous system. While it had existed for many years, by the 1900s it was a frightening disease for children especially, though it did affect adults. According to research, the 1952 polio epidemic saw almost 58,000 cases in the U.S., over 3,000 people died and over 21,000 were left with some degree of paralysis. The first polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk in the 1950s. A few years later, an oral vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin.

As an elementary school student in the 1950s, I remember the field trials for the testing of the vaccine in 1954. With parental permission, children called “polio pioneers” were given a test of the Salk vaccine in school. And in 1955, children were given the proven vaccine as part of a free clinic program. Later, children were vaccinated by their family doctor. 

Combating polio involved all of us.  Even in small villages like East Rochester, funds for research and help for polio victims were raised in a variety of ways. Events like benefit basketball games and bowling matches were covered by the local newspaper. Card parties were held in places like the high school community room and Masonic Hall on West Commercial Street with door prizes and refreshments served.

Perhaps the most well-known fundraising effort was the March of Dimes. Founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who himself had polio, this program was created to help fund research and lend a financial helping hand to people suffering from polio. Since anyone could afford a dime, the advertising allowed all ages to participate. Beginning in the 1950s, 3,100 chapters of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (operated mostly by volunteers) were all over the country.

The campaign was always held in January. Canisters for depositing coins were placed in banks, businesses and industry. School children from elementary to high school donated in their classrooms. Cardboard “cards” with slots for dimes were seen all over. A major part of the campaign was the Mother’s March with women going door-to-door to collect money, no matter the weather, as noted in a January 1954 headline in the paper, “Turn on Your Porch Light, January 27 for the Mother’s March on Polio.” The fire department even helped by going up and down the streets with a loud speaker to remind people of the march.

Working together got us through that difficult time. Supporting each other now will get us through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anita Mance serves as historian for the town/village of East Rochester.

March of Dimes poster children.