A boomer’s recollection as a polio pioneer

We were intrigued here at BoomerCafé the other day when we got a note from baby boomer Lucy Iscaro of White Plains, New York. She wrote, “No one likes getting jabbed by needles but back in the second grade I had scores of companions, all of us quaking together.” What she was talking about was her experience of being one of the hapless kids the press at the time called Polio Pioneers. Well, she wasn’t alone. Some of us were right there with her. As Lucy says, it was another time, another vaccine.

As I rolled up my sleeve for the annual flu innoculation last week, the child inside me started to sweat. I was sweating because I remembered another time, another dreaded disease, and another vaccine.

It was an ordinary day at P.S. 162 in Queens, New York. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were guided through our typical round of round-robin reading. We ate graham crackers and drank warm milk at snack time. What turned ordinary into extraordinary was that at the end of the day we were handed important-looking envelopes to bring home to our parents.

After dinner my father read the mimeographed letter aloud. I didn’t understand it all but I overheard the words “Salk” and “polio” as he reassured my mother, “They wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t safe.”

It was a consent form to allow me to be part of a medical trial. Dr. Jonas Salk’s new anti-polio vaccine was to be administered in my school.

Dr. Jonas Salk

I knew all about polio. There were often warnings in the news for children to stay out of crowds and avoid getting chilled or over-tired. I had seen photos of brave little children, their faces just visible through the opening of a metal cylinder. My breath caught up short, just thinking of being trapped in that iron prison. I wanted to be spared polio. Yet as much as I didn’t want polio, I was petrified of getting a shot.

Against my wishes, my pleas, my tearful begging, my parents enlisted my arm in the battle against the dreaded disease.

Then, soon after I was involuntarily volunteered, I was called out of class to join a shaky line going up two floors to the gym. We snaked past the principal’s office and climbed the stairs. The gym had been transformed into a medical clinic. Nurses in their stiff white uniforms and origami caps stood at long tables. A few doctors wearing long white coats walked around with clipboards. They wore friendly grins that fooled no one.

Helpless terror moved down the line as we looked towards the children whose arms were already being prepped. The smell of the alcohol swabs, or was it just the smell of fear, was dizzying. We looked at each other while whispered rumors drifted down the line.

The needle is as big as a ruler and when they put it in you, blood comes out. Bobby fainted, his Mom had to come. Judy wet her pants.

Lucy Iscaro with her father back in the days of the polio scare.

But there was no escape. I was propelled forward and my arm was gripped firmly. I remember the stab of the needle and my immense relief as I marched away on rubbery legs. Despite the tears running down my face I was victorious. I hadn’t screamed … nor wet my pants.

As an adult I’ve read that 1.3 million children were innoculated with the Salk vaccine in the double-blind test in 1954. Back then I had no understanding of the fact that I was part of a large-scale test of a new vaccine. The only test I understood was the test of my newborn courage.

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13 Comments

    1. Thank you, RS. It’s true. My parents had supreme confidence in the authorities that ran our schools and the medical profession.

  1. In the 60s I recall the clear plastic boxes at the grocery store checkout stands with the photos of the children with crutches and leg braces.

    With her friends, my mom participated in the March of Dimes, years after the polio vaccines, to continue the work in the prevention of other childhood diseases.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating look at such a cataclysmic moment in history, told through the eyes of a young “involuntary volunteer.” My heart was racing as I read this. How interesting to read your father’s response to the note from school. Such faith in our institutions! Those days are long gone!

  3. In my elementary school in Maryland, we were given sugar cubes. While I knew of the polio epidemic as a child from reading an article in Life magazine, I am not sure I made the connection between the sugar cube and the iron lungs in the pictures.

    As an adult, when I did more research, I learned I had taken the live polio virus embedded in the sugar cube.

    Not sure if everyone is aware of why Franklin Delano Roosevelt is pictured on the dime. Most people know FDR had polio. He also tried various therapies to try and “cure” or ameliorate his loss of mobility. To further polio research, he started a foundation which became the March of Dimes which helped fund Salk’s research.

    1. Thank you for your comment Ria. When I learned later of the the sugar cube vaccine my first reaction was, “Hey no fair! Why did I have to get the shot and they only take sugar?” We’re all lucky to have been spared the experience of this disease.

      1. 🙂 I was happy to get the sugar cube. I didn’t like shots. the history of polio vaccine research is complicated. There are many stories about the efforts to find a vaccine.

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