Decades before COVID-19, there was an epidemic story with a happy ending. During the 20th century, Americans pulled together to defeat the polio virus, putting their faith in scientists and public-health guidelines. Wisconsin played a part in this heroic effort.
Between the 1910s and the 1950s, polio was the stuff of American nightmares. The disease paralyzed or killed hundreds of thousands, particularly children. In 1937, the city of Milwaukee ordered 15,000 kids to stay home from school to prevent infections. During other outbreaks, Kenosha and Janesville closed their beaches.
In the “La Crosse Tribune,” Staff Loveland described contracting polio at age 5 and becoming a quadriplegic. When Lonnie Miller of Westby was stricken in 1952, a janitor wearing gloves came into his classroom, removed his desk, and burned it along with his textbooks and pencils. That’s how scared people were of spreading the virus.
In our day, the coronavirus sparked a culture war, with people arguing over masks and social distancing. By contrast, 20th century Americans formed a united front against polio. President Franklin Roosevelt encouraged ordinary citizens to donate their spare change to polio research through the March of Dimes. Millions answered the call, from scout troops to church groups. Waitresses donated their tips, and children competed to see who could collect the most donations during Halloween. Dimes poured into the White House.
The campaign was a boon for scientists, particularly Dr. Jonas Salk. The passionate young virologist saw children in leg braces and iron lungs and vowed to relieve their suffering. In 1948, he began working on a polio vaccine that would create what he called “freedom from fear.”
Salk made a breakthrough in 1952, and two years later, his vaccine was the subject of a national field trial. Once again, Americans joined together on a vast scale. Three million people helped raise funds for the biggest medical test in history, representing a unique collaboration among scientists, doctors, and the public. Run by volunteers across 44 states, including Wisconsin, it planned inoculations for nearly two million elementary schoolchildren.
The volunteer army was 300,000 strong, including doctors, nurses, and teachers. Kids got a series of three shots and a pin that proclaimed them “Polio Pioneers.” Paula Brown Sinclair remembers participating in Eau Claire and being hailed as a local hero.
When researchers declared the vaccine a success — on April 12, 1955 — Americans showed their gratitude. Shopkeepers painted “Thank You, Dr. Salk” on their windows. Composers wrote waltzes in his honor. Young Terry Doeblen of Milwaukee sent Salk a letter calling him “a small man with a big mind.”
Polio cases plummeted, and within six years, the disease had almost vanished in the United States.
Decades later, in the “Kenosha News,” Charles Leicht recalled his youthful participation in the national field trial. He marveled over what he and his fellow citizens had accomplished. “Being a Polio Pioneer was, perhaps, the most important thing I have done in my life,” he said. “We and Jonas Salk eradicated polio.”
Dean Robbins is the author of “Thank You, Dr. Salk!” and other children’s picture books.