Reading my daily Garrison Keiler Writers Almanac entry on Sunday, I saw that on that date,  in 1954, the first mass inoculation of children for polio began.  The vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.  It had been safely tested on monkeys, but testing on a larger scale was necessary, so a field trial involving 1.8 million school children began.

That entry resonated so much with me because I was one of the children that received that first vaccine in 1954.

The worst outbreak in America’s history had hit in 1952, with 58,000 cases of polio reported.  More than 3,000 people died and others were left with paralysis.

I clearly remember being anxious and scared as a child that I would get sick.  A young girl down the street from us had contacted polio that year and was hospitalized in an iron lung. Caution and concern were everywhere.

A co–worker and I were talking about dramatic play in childhood.  She shared the story of when she was young and how she and her siblings would turn a particular piece of furniture on its side ( I think it might have been a kitchen stool) and have one of them climb in and pretend they had polio and were in an iron lung.

Dramatic play in the 50’s – working out their fears of polio through play.

A national double blind experiment was set up in the schools.   650,00 children received the vaccine – 750,00 children received a placebo – 430,00 children served as controls and had nothing.  There were a series of three injections over a 5-week period.   Meetings were held and a consent form was given to parents to sign.

I was 8-years-old in the third grade.  I don’t recall being particularly scared of the shots. I do remember one good friend whose parents didn’t sign the consent, and it did give me some pause and made me wonder why they didn’t and why mine did.  But,  I think I felt pretty important being a part of this big event – and as the youngest of six children, very proud of receiving a Polio Pioneer pin and card to boast about.

A year later, the official announcement was made that the vaccine was safe and effective.  It was a day of celebration and relief throughout the country.

I found out then that I had received the actual vaccine.

I wonder about it now, as a parent, what would I have done?  I’m not sure we often consider the anguish and concern that our parents faced raising us – at least not until we become parents ourselves.

I wish I had asked more questions of my parents about what it was like for them facing the issues and challenges of their day.  Keep that in mind while there’s still time to spend together with your parents and older relatives.

Share the experience.

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