Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
Long IslandHistory

LI's vaccine volunteers: In 1954, thousands line up to fight polio

Martha Prime, 9-years-old, of Huntington, gets a polio

Martha Prime, 9-years-old, of Huntington, gets a polio vaccine from Dr. Joseph Palmieri, also of Huntington. (April 27, 1954) Credit: Newsday/Water del Toro

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

More than 4,000 monkeys a month were flown during the mid-1950s from India and the Philippines to a desolate laboratory along the bank of a small river near Bluffton, S.C. Those monkeys would play pivotal roles in helping provide the vaccine used in the largest polio-vaccination test program in the United States - conducted on Long Island in 1954.

The monkeys' kidneys were removed and the organs' cells were injected with polio virus. The cells then multiplied, and the virus was scientifically treated so that it would not transmit the disease. The process produced a vaccine that, when injected into humans, would develop antibodies designed to fight polio and its crippling effects.

On April 27, 1954, about 15,000 Suffolk children began rolling up their sleeves for the first of three shots in a nationwide test of the polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Six days later, Nassau began inoculating 50,000 children. Half the children in each county received Salk vaccine. The other half got a harmless liquid, enabling medical researchers to gauge the vaccine's effectiveness.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the terror posed by polio at the time. Parents lived in constant dread that their children would be stricken - perhaps killed, perhaps condemned by paralysis to pass their days in iron-lung machines. Many had grown up with constant reminders of polio's ravages in the person of the nation's most celebrated victim of the disease, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some parents who could afford it took their children to summer resorts each year to remove them from crowded urban and suburban neighborhoods reputed to provide breeding grounds for polio.

Although there was concern among parents about the safety of the injections, more than 90 percent of the eligible children turned out to receive their shots on Long Island. Initially, the injections were given to children in the first, second and third grades but eventually were provided to older children and adults. Some children involved in the initial tests smiled self-consciously as the needles slid into their arms. Others cried. Many held their arms afterward. All received lollipops as rewards for their fortitude.

Physicians and nurses from throughout both counties volunteered their services in visiting schools to administer the shots. At the Meadowlawn School in East Meadow, school nurse Ruth Foote supervised the vaccination of 540 children. As one small boy emerged from a booth after receiving his shot, he told a friend: "You know, that doctor was telling me jokes - trying to take my mind off the needle."

Another student, 9-year-old Danny Billings, wore an unworried expression - even a trace of a smile - as he received his shot at the Meadowlawn School. But Ellen Engel, 7, yowled as she received hers at Central School in Long Beach. Robert Lange, 7, his broken right arm in a cast, gamely offered his left so Dr. Michael Lorenzo could inject him with vaccine at the North Side School in East Williston.

Nassau and Suffolk medical officials said they were confident the vaccine was safe. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, sponsoring the tests, pointed out that Jonas Salk's own children had taken the vaccine along with 8,000 Pittsburgh children and there had been no ill effects.

A second shot would be injected a week after the first and a third shot four weeks later. Before being used, each batch of vaccine was tested in three independent laboratories to ensure that it could not transmit the disease. It was also tested to be sure it contained no live virus causing any other disease.

As had been predicted, the injection program occasionally ran into problems. There were, for example, periodic shortages of vaccine. Nassau officials at one point proposed stretching the supply by giving only one injection to each child - using the rest to spread the coverage to additional children. But the plan was reversed when a national committee of 33 polio experts expressed unanimous disapproval.

Even when shots were taken, some recipients still contracted polio and small numbers even died. In 1955, a Bethpage child, Donita Lent, became the first in the state to contract polio after receiving one shot of vaccine. Bruce Spiegel, an 8-year-old second-grader at Oceanside Central School, came down with a mild case of polio a short time later. Bruce had received two injections. He initially ran a high fever, then complained that his left arm felt "awfully heavy." He was taken to a doctor, who immediately hospitalized him. Relatives said they were sure he would have suffered a more severe case of polio if he had not taken the two shots.

In August 1959, a Sayville mother became the first person on Long Island to die of polio after taking three shots of Salk vaccine. Mary Fleming, 38, died in Southside Hospital in Bay Shore two days after coming down with bulbar polio - the most serious form of the disease. She, her husband and their five children had all taken the vaccine. That same week, Nassau Health Commissioner Earle Brown disclosed that eight children in his county who had taken Salk shots had contracted polio during that year. "No vaccine is 100 percent perfect," Brown said. "But this vaccine, I have faith in it."

There seemed good reason for such faith. The vaccine clearly worked.

During a typical pre-Salk year, 1950, there were 309 reported polio cases and 19 deaths in Nassau. By the time of Mary Fleming's death eight months into 1959, there were only 10 cases and no additional deaths on all of Long Island. Throughout New York State, there were 1,910 polio cases and 187 deaths in 1950. In 1960, there were only 138 cases and 26 deaths statewide.

Eventually, polio would be all but eradicated in the United States. Long Island health officials said recently that no polio cases have been reported to them in at least three years. Jonas Salk, who died of a heart ailment in 1995 at the age of 80, surely deserves most of the credit. But some say a word of gratitude is due those thousands of monkeys that helped bring Salk's vaccine to the world.

Latest Long Island News