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Polio Vaccine's Proud Pioneers

Franklin Sherman Elementary School was the site of the first use of polio vacine in the nation.

Fifty years ago a group of school children from Franklin Sherman Elementary school in McLean led the nation and the world in the eradication of polio. On April 26, 1954 Dr. Richard Mulvaney, a local pediatrician, administered the first inoculation of the Salk polio vaccine to Randy Kerr in the school's cafeteria. This launched the nationwide trial of the landmark vaccine.

Today, thanks to the vaccine and the brave participation of the children in McLean, only six countries in the world have incidences of polio. “India, Pakistan and Nigeria are still affected. It’s only a plane ride away. There are six countries in total where it’s making its last stand. We’ve made great progress in a short time,” said Dr. Steve Cochi, the acting director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Immunization Program.

Cochi, along with several dignitaries and members of the March of Dimes, came to Franklin Sherman Elementary School this week to honor the pioneers who were given the first shots and to stress the importance of immunizing children against 12 vaccine-preventable diseases.

“When we band together in this country we can achieve great things, this field trial is an example of that,” said Dr. Jennifer Howse, the president of the March of Dimes. The trials, she added, “are a testament to the power of science to improve the human condition.”

CHILDREN IN AMERICA TODAY do not know polio or the crippling fear that grabbed the nation 50 years ago as people were indiscriminately struck with the disease. Those hit with polio were often crippled for life or worse, forced to live in an iron lung that automatically compressed and expanded the diaphragm to enable the victim to breathe.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is perhaps the most famous polio sufferer and survivor. He was an adult when, in 1921, he was diagnosed with polio after awakening one morning unable to move his legs. His experience led him to establish the March of Dimes six years after taking office in 1932.

The March of Dimes galvanized citizens and volunteers around the nation to go door-to-door in their neighborhoods collecting dimes for research during the Depression Era.

The coins raised by the March of Dimes funded the efforts of several scientists working to discover the cause of polio. Dr. Jonas Salk worked at the University of Pittsburgh for three years unraveling the actual number of strains of the virus. He discovered that all strains fit into three distinct groups and that an effective vaccine needed to incorporate a virus from each set.

In 1951 Salk used his findings, in tandem with those of scientists at Harvard University, to develop the vaccine. The next year the vaccine was tested on a small group of children who had recovered from polio.

Recognizing that a breakthrough loomed, the March of Dimes then directed and funded the largest medical field trial in history in 1954 using Salk’s vaccine. In total, 1,836,000 unaffected children took part in those field trials. Those field trials were initiated in McLean.

Franklin Sherman, said Howse, “marked the beginning of the end for polio.”

The school in McLean secured its place in history through accident. Dr. Mulvaney explained that the trial was supposed to be held in Washington, D.C., but due to damming remarks made by Walter Winchell in his radio address that created fears the vaccine could spread polio, that city backed out.

“When I walked into where the vaccines were to be given, there were quite a lot of people. There were a lot of reporters, TV cameras and kids out in the hall screaming. They were screaming because they were about to get a shot. I wasn’t prepared for the reaction, but we all do feel we were a part of history. When the vaccine came, the number of cases of polio dropped dramatically. It was great being a part of that,” said Dr. Mulvaney.

“Fortunately [the vaccine] was put out and we did it here,” said Mulvaney. Children today, he said, “don’t know what polio is, but at least they don’t get it.”

Jackie French Lonergan was one of the first recipients of the vaccine. She said she was not afraid of the vaccine because Dr. Mulvaney was her family doctor at the time. “I stood in this very cafeteria and became a polio pioneer,” Lonergan said. “What we can do in the next 50 years should be amazing.”

“THE SHOTS WERE A REALLY BIG DEAL. These were the shots that were going to end polio. Iron lung was a big deal back then and it was scary,” said Lonergan.

Gail Adams Batt was 6 years old when she received the vaccine at Franklin Sherman Elementary School. She was actually a student at Chesterbrook Elementary School but had been told by her parents that she had to go and get the shot. “The main thing I remember is that it seemed like a fun adventure. There were three of us in our little group - I was the youngest and was proud to be included. It did seem like we were doing something special at the time. But, perhaps the reason I remember it vividly is because I sat next to a little boy in school who did not show up for school one Monday. I clearly remember the teacher saying he had contracted polio. I do not remember his name, just where he lived in my neighborhood. My friends and I would walk by his house and wonder what happened to him,” said Batt.

As a child Batt speculated that she was chosen for the trial because she sat next to the boy and could have become infected. Her experience underscores the fears and mystery that surrounded polio at the time.

“The day was a success in my mind. I did not cry, I did not faint ... and I got to leave school and get an ice cream,” said Batt.

Anita Perry, wife of the Governor of Texas and the March of Dimes National Chair for Childhood Immunization, called the trials at Franklin Sherman, “The shot that was felt around the world.”

Cochi said that “childhood diseases were expected and dealt with,” back in the 1950s when 15,000 to 20,000 people were diagnosed with polio each year. “Today polio has been removed from our national consciousness,” said Cochi. The last diagnosed case of polio in the United States was in 1979.

Eradicating polio on U.S. soil is a crowning achievement, but the March of Dimes is continuing to fight for the immunization of every child in this country from the other diseases for which a vaccine is available.

“Immunization must be a lifelong commitment,” said Perry. The 12 vaccines available combat diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, haemophilus influenza type B, hepatitis B, chickenpox, pneumococcus and influenza.