Yesterday's News

First polio vaccinations were community effort

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
April 24, 2005

Tri-county schoolchildren got their first shot at escaping polio 50 years ago.

On April 25, 1955, the Henderson County Health Department on Fifth Street was a-bustle with activity as 1,222 students were inoculated with the new vaccine developed by Jonas Salk; similar vaccinations took place the same day in Union and Webster counties. The effectiveness of the vaccine had been announced only two weeks earlier.

Polio had been described by the ancient Egyptians 5,000 years earlier, but it didn't really pose a major threat until the advent of modern sanitation, according to a Web page of the University of Pittsburgh. That doesn't appear to make sense, does it?

In the old unsanitary days, however, people were exposed to the virus practically at birth, and that early exposure caused most people to develop lifelong defenses. Although newborn infants were routinely infected, they seldom got sick because they were protected by antibodies transmitted from the blood of their mothers. Modern sanitation compromised that method of natural immunization.

The first major outbreak in the United States didn't come until 1916, and the disease made regular appearances over the next four decades, killing and crippling untold thousands.

Nowadays it's hard to imagine the relief the vaccine brought to anxious mothers and fathers. As Richard Carter described in his book, "Breakthrough," the announcement that the vaccine worked prompted widespread and fervent demonstrations: "People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes ... hugged children.... More than a scientific achievement, the vaccine was a folk victory."

Salk received thousands of grateful letters from across the nation; in its first three years of use the vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by nearly 90 percent.

On April 21, 1955, a 51-box shipment of 163,000 cubic centimeters of vaccine arrived in Louisville, and the following day Kentucky National Guard planes flew the vaccine to distribution centers in Ashland, Owensboro, Paducah and Bowling Green.

"The first Henderson child to receive the Salk vaccine was Judith Freeman, 7, a student at Weaverton," The Gleaner reported. "She was one of the county pupils who started arriving early yesterday morning in county school buses.

"Most of the children took their medicine without a whimper. Only about three or four got a little sick from the needling.

"Twelve local doctors took turns yesterday here and finished the job by 2:30 p.m. There was a little hold-up early when a problem arose in the sterilizing of the needles as fast as they were being used. This job was farmed out to Methodist Hospital."

That tag team of local doctors included Julian B. Cole, W.A. Blue, Millard Shaw, Elmer Wallace, Sam Taylor, Robert H. English, Walter L. O'Nan, G.A. Buckmaster, John S. Newman, Charles Kissinger, Darrel Vaughn and J. Leland Tanner.

But it was a community effort, really. Local volunteers ferried kids to the health department, where the extension service Homemaker clubs provided additional help.

"Police were on hand to direct the traffic and keep the area clear," The Gleaner reported. "Methodist Hospital supplied two nurses, and the PTA groups supplied the transportation."

In Union County, 660 children were vaccinated under the direction of Dr. Charles P. Bartley at schools in Morganfield, Sturgis, Uniontown and Waverly.

Dr. J.E. Jenkins oversaw the 385 Webster County vaccinations, which were headquartered at the county Health Center in Dixon, although vaccinations also took place at schools in Poole, Slaughters, Onton, Sebree, Diamond, Providence and Clay.

The process was repeated after a couple of weeks for the second shot in the series, although the final shot wasn't administered until about seven months later.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS