It came in summer with rising temperatures, longer days and fresh hopes, a season that was supposed to be idyllic, especially for children, was transformed into a time of terror, of illness, of paralysis, and all too often of death.
In New York in the middle of July 1916, amid a terrible outbreak in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, that would afflict twenty seven thousand Americans and kill 7000, The New York Times wrote of the real life nightmare of a father whose son was succumbing to poliomyelitis, popularly called polio. Unable to obtain a physician, the Times reported he put the boy into an automobile and drove to the hospital, but the child died on the way and the doctors would not receive the body.
He drove around Staten Island with the boy's body for hours looking for someone who would receive it. The nation, too, was driving around in confusion and in grief and in panic and would for decades to come.
I'm Jon Meacham and this is Hope Through History. Episode three, The Polio Crisis. We realize we have to have a society in which on certain issues, we're in the same boat. I see kids in wheelchairs, on crutches, the occasional empty desk of a child who had made it through the summer. He was told by his mother that there were no problems that couldn't be solved if he put his hand to the wheel. He decided he should do something about Roosevelt began the most successful private charity in American history, and that is the March of Dimes.
The fear of polio in the United States was a factor from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century's. What time Lee founder Henry Luce had called the American century of power and glory of progress and prosperity was blighted by an ambient, even existential anxiety that an invisible virus could strike at any time. The fact that children were especially vulnerable exacerbated the enveloping sense of hopelessness. The story of polio is a very American one, an affliction that struck amid affluence.
It prompted philanthropic medical research, shaped mass public opinion, played a role in popular politics and by dint of decades of intensive, rivalrous work, produced a seemingly miraculous vaccine that secured the nation, particularly the young, at the pinnacle of post-World War Two American power. The lessons of the war against polio resonate even now. The significance of science, the central idea of concerted social effort, the abiding need for private as well as public support for great causes.
This is 1949 as war against infantile paralysis. The incidents of 1949 already represents an increase over 1948 of 83 percent to one figure. This the worst polio epidemic in history, will take us. We do not know. We do know that we must accept this challenge. It is closed the gates on normal childhood. It has swept our beaches, filled our books, emptied our pockets. I got polio in nineteen forty nine, which was a record year, there were forty thousand cases, more than forty thousand cases.
This is the author and historian Jeff Ward, who has also won five Emmys as a writer for documentaries such as Baseball, Prohibition and the Civil War.
My mother realized I had it and rushed me to the hospital. In my case, I dropped a bunch of comic books on the floor and rather than bother the nurse, I decided to jump out of bed and get them. And I collapsed on the floor and couldn't get back in bed and decided I'd done something terrible and the nurse would be mad at me. So I tried to get in by myself. And I still sometimes have dreams of pulling the sheet down because I grabbed the sheet to pull myself up and the sheet came down over me.
I still remember that pretty vividly. And I spent three months in there at the home for destitute, crippled children, which was the kind of name they put on hospitals in those days. And my mother used to cry every time she left the building when she saw the sign. First of all, in those days, they wouldn't tell you what was wrong because they thought the word polio was so frightening that it would set you back. I was nine then I had surgery two summers after that, it left me walking sort of like Charlie Chaplin.
There was a special operation that they worked up which allowed you to transfer tendons and make your feet go forward. A lot of people were much more severely hurt than I was and and many died.
But what I remember is just the complete terror. And I think the parallel with this thing now is the fear. It's hard to explain to people now how frightened parents were in this country during those summers. You know, theaters closed, the zoo closed, beaches closed. When it was at its worst. Nobody fully understood it. Nobody understood how much damage it would do. Some people, my best friend and I got it the same day. He never had the slightest effect of it.
And I was handicapped by it. So capricious, just like the current virus. And the terror was the same. The scale of this current thing is much, much, much bigger and much more dire. Polio was not unknown in antiquity. It's likely that Hypocritic confronted it, at least in passing. Sir Walter Scott suffered from it as a child in the 17 70s, writing about it with characteristic brio. I showed every sign of health and strength until I was about 18 months old.
In the morning, I was discovered to be infected with the fever that often accompanies the cutting of large teeth. It held me three days. On the fourth, they discovered that I had lost the power of my right leg. As modernity unfolded, The New York Times first mentioned polio in 1857 in a piece describing the commencement exercises at New York Medical College. There was an epidemic in Vermont in the Oter Valley in 1894. In eighteen ninety nine, in a story headlined Puzzling Child Disease, the Times reported what would become an all too familiar story.
Epidemic of infantile paralysis baffles physicians believed to be contagious, the newspaper wrote. Physicians are perplexed by an epidemic of infantile paralysis, which is prevailing the cause for which cannot yet be ascertained.
New cases are added every day, and some of them are serious.
Dr. D.M. Sheedy's, who has a number of cases, said today the disease is such an uncommon one that very little is known about it standing by stricken children everywhere, or the anxious parents whose families have been at least temporarily broken by an unseen enemy about which too little is known.
They know they must stand by and fight until the danger is passed. This is a fight to the finish. Of all parents and all the American people, we must continue to fight with all our weapons, using every precaution to discourage contagion and the spread of infection. We have real hope for the conquest of poliomyelitis, but the siege is long and painstaking and trying. That would, alas, be a prevailing truth for many decades to come, parents had been perennially desperate to save their children from disease.
Benjamin Franklin long regretted that he had failed to inoculate an 18th century way of saying vaccinated one of his own children. Franklin wrote. In seventeen thirty six, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by innoculation. This I mentioned, for the sake of parents who admit that operation on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it.
My example showing that the Regrette may be the same either way and that therefore the safer should be chosen by our founders, especially Franklin and Jefferson, would have thought you were a Luddite if you didn't keep up with science.
This is the biographer Ed and Professor Walter Isaacson.
When Franklin was a young kid, only about 14 years old, he was apprenticed to his brother up in Boston. And there was a fight over whether smallpox vaccines were dangerous or whether they would work. And Benjamin Franklin at first was against the smallpox vaccine. But like a lot of the people who were founders of our nation, they believed in facts. They believed in evidence, and they tested it out. Benjamin Franklin's young son, Frankie. He doesn't inoculate them, even though Franklin by then believes in the vaccination, but he thinks Frank is a bit too young.
Well, Frankie gets a smallpox and he dies ever since then. Franklin kept writing in his notebooks, whether it was about things like welfare laws or immigration, he would always say, let the experiments be made. That was one of his phrases. So this notion of saying, let's keep an open mind, let's let science guide us on multiple things, that begins with the smallpox epidemics we had in the seventeen hundreds. Irony suffuses the story of polio in America as the nation grew more sophisticated as we became a cleaner, people using soap, detergents, even cellophane.
We inadvertently created a greater vulnerability to a virus like polio. Epidemics of all sorts were in abeyance as the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and the Progressive Era gave way to the roaring 20s, but not polio, as David Oshinsky argued in his Pulitzer Prize winning account, as the nation cleaned up, new problems arose.
There was now a smaller chance that people would come into contact with dangerous microbes early in life when the infection was milder and maternal antibodies offered temporary protection. In the case of polio, the result would be more frequent outbreaks and a wider range of victims. I was a child of the baby boom, so every June, like clockwork, the New York City where I lived would begin to print box scores of the number of children in the Pollie Awards of New York City.
This is David Oshinsky, author of Polio An American Story.
And they will go up in June. They go higher in July. They kind of peak in August. And by Labor Day, they would break in. Polio, of course, was the great summer plague. And I would come back to school and I see kids in leg braces. I see kids in wheelchairs, on crutches, the occasional empty desk of a child who had made it through the summer and had died of polio. I can remember very, very well my mother giving me a polio test every day.
Could I touch my toes? Could I put my chin to my chest? The slightest sense that I had a stiffness or a stomach ache would bring a kind of panic. My parents were both poor. They were schoolteachers making not a very good living. But they always took us out of New York City in the summer with the belief that if we somehow got into a less crowded area, we would be less likely to get polio. You can just multiply that by millions of families in this era, all feeling pretty much the same way.
Poliomyelitis is derived from Greek with polio, meaning grey and millia meaning marro, the disease name evokes short of death, its most fearsome effect, an attack on the tissue in the center of the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. The virus was communicated by mouth and it tended to breed in the small intestine. And invasive force polio flourished, their symptoms ranged from the minor headache and nausea and fever to the terrifying paralysis, temporary and permanent, and in the worst of cases, death.
Usually when the brainstem was attacked and disabled, shutting down the lungs, it was, to borrow a phrase from our current vernacular, an invisible enemy. In 1931, there were nearly 16000 cases and about 2000 deaths. By 1952, they would be nearly 60000 cases and 30 145 deaths in those decades. There was a singular figure in American life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at thirty nine had been struck down by polio but refused to surrender his leadership after becoming president in 1933, included something that's largely lost to us today, which is understandable.
The fight against the depression in the waging of World War Two rightly dominate our recollection of the 30 second president. In real time, however, his dedication was at the forefront, Franklin Roosevelt, as you know, the president from nineteen thirty three until nineteen forty five, was a polio survivor and he spent his entire life trying to find the cure and the prevention for polio. We never found the cure for polio. There still is no cure. But Roosevelt, using his influence in the White House, his bully pulpit, Roosevelt began the most successful private charity in American history, and that is the March of Dimes.
We are all engaged in a campaign which, because of special circumstances, requires that our efforts should be nationwide, unified and continuous.
We have to constantly and I'm like a diamond changed to say I'm going to give mine to President Roosevelt. President, I make. Yes, you see, Judy, I've got my envelope made up right here. It's all ready to go see for yourself. Oh, I know. That's a March of Dimes, the infantile paralysis fund.
FDR support for the March of Dimes, the popular name for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, had a profound impact on American philanthropy, culture and science. The entertainer Eddie Cantor, a friend of the president's, came up with the phrase, It was a play on the popular newsreel, the March of Time, which was a kind of cable news briefing that ran in movie houses, though to be sure, movie houses like churches and swimming pools would be closed during periods of polio anxiety.
Roosevelt's birthday January 30th became a huge fundraising occasion for the March of Dimes, and the door slides open to the right outcomes.
The president of the United States. Let's listen for a moment. At the time of the birthday celebration, half of all of the funds raised in each county will be retained in trust for the chapters for local use, and the other half of the fund raised will go to the National Foundation for the National Fight Against Infantile Paralysis. I haven't had many telegrams today, Thanksgiving telegrams, not one that I want to read to you from an old friend, Eddie Cantor, the comedian, the actor.
May you and yours have to have a happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful that I can live in a country where our leaders sit down on Thanksgiving Day to carve up a turkey instead of a map. Now, I believe the president really has finished his informal little talk as a host to the guests here at the Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia, a complete family affair. That's certainly the spirit here, where patients in wheelchairs, lying on stretchers, sitting in chairs with braces and their crutches beside them prepared to attack the Thanksgiving turkey.
The very fact of FDA's insistence on remaining in the arena helped change the public understanding of what were then called cripples, the mother of a young boy who had to wear leg braces as a result of polio wrote the president to say, Every time I hear your voice on the radio and read about your attitude toward physical handicaps that they don't amount to a hill of beans. I am strengthened and my courage is renewed.
Your life is, in a way, an answer to my prayers. But let's be clear on one thing, reflexive partisanship about matters of public health, about matters of life and death really is not unique to our own time. President Roosevelt's leadership of the crusade against polio produced, but we'd today call a red state reaction. In the late 1930s, the wife of a Republican leader said, I am willing to contribute to the polio campaign on any day but Roosevelt's birthday.
I consider January 30th to be a sad day in the history of the United States. As ever, Roosevelt never relented. And so it was that an empathetic, engaged American president communicated neither false optimism nor debilitating fear to a nation that was characteristically divided. It raised more money during the polio years than every other charity put together, with the exception of the American Red Cross. And what this amazing, amazing organization did with Roosevelt, basically as the backstop was to provide not one, but two extraordinarily effective polio vaccines that have ended polio in America, ended polio in the Western Hemisphere and most of the rest of the world.
Mrs. Roosevelt represents the president and one of the many birthday parties in his honor. Litterbugs Mickolus effort to amuse the crowd. This is typical of many parties which highlight that the March of Dimes campaign making merry in the name of a great woman.
Whatever else you thought of Roosevelt, he was told by his mother that there were no problems that couldn't be solved if he put his hand to the wheel. So when he got polio, he decided he should do something about it. He established the Warm Springs Foundation that when he became president, turned into the March of Dimes and he basically mobilized the country. If you went to the movies during those days, they would stop the movie and pass a cup around so that ordinary citizens could put dimes and nickels and quarters and half dollars, if you were lucky, into a cup before they'd see the rest of the movie.
His birthday was celebrated each year, including these enormous formal dinners all over the country to raise money. It was an extraordinary thing. I'm not sure it could be done in our era, but it produced vast amounts of money and this absolute resolve that they were going to solve this thing. To me, it's a glorious American story of practicality and vision and determination to meet a challenge. FDR could inspire, preside and raise money for research. But it would take scientists to do the hard work of finding a way out of the thicket of polio itself.
History honors Jonas Salk as the leading figure among a company of researchers who gave so much to fighting the polio scourge. Born in New York City in 1914, Salk was the oldest of three brothers in a Russian immigrant family.
Sock's father, who worked in the city's garment district, was described as something of a Willy Loman character from Death of a Salesman, beaten down in business but still believing the success would soon be. His Sox mother was a formidable woman.
Her son, Jonas, recalled that she wanted to be sure that we were all going to advance in the world. Therefore, we were encouraged in our studies and overly protected. Jonas harbored few doubts about his own capacities. He once recalled there was a photograph of me when I was a year old and there was that look of curiosity on that infant's face that is inescapable.
I have the suspicion that this curiosity was very much part of my early life. I tended to observe and reflect and wonder.
My mother had been an immigrant and was not able to read English very well, as a matter of fact, because she came to this country and I promptly went to work in order to help support the family. My father had not too much education up through elementary school, and nevertheless, my mother's desire was for her children to have as much education as possible. I think her ambition was for me to be a teachers that I would not have to strenuous and difficult to live.
She was very overprotective. Uh, my preference was law or medicine was like it was my choice and at least I did not do what she wanted and what I wanted. But something else. Educated in the New York Public School City College in New York University Medical School, Salk interned at Mount Sinai and married Donna Lindsay, a socially liberal graduate of Smith College who broadened her young husband's political outlook to include the reform impulses of the era. After World War two, Salt went to work in Pittsburgh to do research and he included polio in his initial proposals, it was not a decision made from passion, but out of an abundance of practicality because of FDR and the March of Dimes.
There was plenty of funding available for polio research, public attention and private resources then lured Salk into a field where he might not otherwise have gone. The race for a vaccine was intense. Among others, there was Salk and there was Albert Sabin. Born in Poland. In 1936, he and his family fled post Great War pogroms and settled in New Jersey. Initially trained to be a dentist, Sabin was entranced by the romance of unravelling medical mysteries and turned to research.
As the late 40s and early 50s unfolded, Salk and Sabin pursued different routes to the same goal a vaccine against polio. Salk used a killed virus. Sabin alive one. The recent discoveries of Dr. Jonas Salk in America have brought renewed hope to countless victims of poliomyelitis with courage based on confidence, Dr. Sonke inoculated his own three children while testing his vaccine.
By 1955, Salk had shown sufficient progress to go national, and President Eisenhower announced the breakthrough in the Rose Garden.
I should like to say to you that I think of the countless thousands of American parents and grandparents who are hereafter to be spared the agonizing fears of the annual epidemic of polio in my life, when I think of all the agony that these people will be spared as they see loved ones suffering in bed, I must say to you, I have more than adequately to express the thanks of my so all the people I know and all one hundred and sixty four million Americans to say nothing of all the other people in the world.
Little profit for your disability.
I would think of all the things we must bear in mind is really the sanctity of science. As vaccines began to roll out and as antibiotics were developed, that people had enormous faith in scientific elites and in the promise of science, and they were willing to take chances because of that. And I think what we have lost over time is the sense of responsibility and also the feeling as a community that we are all in this together and that we all lead by good science.
We ought to be skeptical in some areas, but more fully than that, when the beauty to me of the entire polio experiment is that this was a community effort, these were people getting together, raising money, privately, giving their children to the largest public health experiment in history. We had an enormous sense, I think, at that time as both community responsibility and the protection of our children and kind of faith in science, that if we provided the resources, they would somehow provide the safety that will allow us to function as a human community.
Eisenhower had a phrase that he used often, which he called my wonderful scientist. So he created NASA. He created a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, and he loves bringing his scientists into the White House to discuss problems. It was a national fight against polio. And because it was funded nationally by things like the March of Dimes as well as the government as well as foundations as well as drug companies had agreed to share the intellectual property. You could everybody could get the polio vaccine when it came out and we all lined up for it.
And of course, Salk didn't even patent the vaccine.
Who owns the patent on this vaccine? Well, the people I would say there is no pact. Good. You patent the sun. He said, can you patent the sun?
You shouldn't be allowed to patent things that are natural and helpful like that. I think that's a lesson we learned here in New Orleans during Katrina, which is when the levees broke, we were all in the same boat, whatever neighborhood, whatever zip code you were in, we were all having to float in the water together, row in the water together. And then when the waters receded and the earth began to heal, we had to build a society in which if any neighborhood flooded, all neighborhoods would flood.
Well, this is even more the case with a pandemic. We realized that in terms of health care, in terms of sick leave, in terms of so many other things, we have to have a society in which on certain issues we're in the same boat. It just means that you have to say there's certain things out of the common good. And part of the common good is public health. The announcement of a polio vaccine was a glorious moment, but the road to that hour of glory was neither short nor easy.
Polio was conquered because of sustained effort, decades of effort, and Americans aren't known for their patience as we face our own viral panic. We can usefully recall the elements that led to the defeat of polio science, resources, philanthropy and focus. It's not the work of a news cycle or of an election cycle. It's the work of the mind powered by fact.
And there's a lesson here from Roosevelt's friend, Winston Churchill, who once wrote The Future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope. The outcome of the battle against covid-19 is unknowable. But this much is clear.
The story of polio should give us some measure of hope to. On the next hope through history, Americans fear the nation is on the brink of nuclear war. John Kennedy works to find a peaceful resolution. But how will the Soviets respond? Our national leaders and our national character were tested and we made it out the other side, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Next time on hope through history.
Thank you for listening to hope through history, a production of Cadenced 13 in association with history executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran, directed by Chris Corcoran, John McDermott and Lloyd Lockridge, and edited, produced, engineered and mastered by Chris Bazil, Bill Schulz, Rich Berner and Sean Cherry.
Graphic Design, Marketing and publicity by Josephine Francis, Kurt, Courtney and Hilary Show. Our theme song is called Little Heart by Michael Kiwanuka.