In these days of rampant conspiracy theories, distrust of science and general paranoia, it’s hard to imagine Americans coming together like they did in 1954 for the largest clinical trial of all time — the test of the polio vaccine.
But times were different then. It’s not that paranoia didn’t exist. This was the height of the McCarthy era, after all. But the massive national sacrifice of World War II was not far behind us, and the crippling disease of polio presented such a horrifying threat to public health that it was not difficult to get the masses on board.
Although I was born in 1954 and remember being in the first wave of kids administered live polio vaccines by sugar cube in the early ’60s, I knew nothing about the great event leading up to that era until a couple weeks ago when speaking with a visitor to the Herald Journal newsroom, Jlene Hansen of Logan.
Jlene and her husband, Steve, were among more than a million early elementary school kids who participated in the clinical trial, and she still has a “Polio Pioneer” certificate to show for it. Over the years, however, that token bit of recognition for all of the kids who bravely served as human guinea pigs has always seemed a bit hollow to her.
“People have forgotten the sacrifice all those parents and kids made,” she said. “I remember my dad having a talk with me about being a little soldier and that people would remember me. Nobody did. People never talked about it. We were the unsung heroes.”
That said, Jlene is proud to have participated in the program. “I would do it again because polio was one of those scary diseases that had to be stopped,” she told me, noting a young relative of hers was on an iron lung because of it. “My mother would have done anything to keep other kids from having to go through that.”
The person who was remembered and celebrated for the 1954 trial is Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first “inactive” polio vaccine. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, Salk himself had no role in designing and conducting the actual field test, but his own children were administered the vaccine in its early stages of development.
The trial involved 1.3 million children, about 420,000 of whom were given the vaccine in three separate shots several weeks apart. Another 201,000 children received placebo shots, and 725,000 served as a “control group” for comparison purposes.
A CBS documentary I found online described the program as “the largest peacetime mobilization of volunteers in American history, requiring the efforts of 325,000 doctors, nurses, educators and private citizens — with no money from federal grants or pharmaceutical companies.” And the results were tabulated by volunteers using good old-fashioned pencils and paper.
How is it that the Hansens of Logan wound up among the guinea pigs in the program? They both grew up in the Brigham City-Tremonton area, which was chosen randomly along with some 80 other test areas in 11 states. Parts of greater Salt Lake City were also selected, and in all, 20,000 Utah kids received shots.
While scouring the Internet for information last week, I came upon an April 2, 1954, article in the Ogden Standard Examiner announcing details of the program to Box Elder County parents. It began as follows:
“Information centers to answer questions about the forthcoming polio vaccine field tests are being set up in four Box Elder County communities, Dr. J. Howard Rasmussen, medical director, said today. Box Elder pupils in the first three grades will line up for a first vaccination some time during the week of April 26, again on May 3 and one last time June 1, he said. The vaccination program is being explained in detail in letters parents can expect to receive Monday, he said. In each will be a sign-up card which should be answered either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and returned within a week.”
Wow, that sure was a short amount of time for families to make such a monumental decision! But I gathered in my reading that time was of the essence, not only because the incidence of polio was soaring but because summer was fast approaching.
Summer is the season polio is most easily spread and thus the best time to thoroughly track it.
Steve Hansen remembers taking the notice home to his parents along with other children attending his elementary school in Brigham City.
“The world was different then. I can’t imagine any parent not wanting their kids to have that opportunity,” he recalls. “Everybody was so afraid of polio. It was just a horrible and devastating disease, and we all knew of people who had been stricken by it.”
When data from the clinical trial was reviewed some months later, the findings were what everyone had hoped for. The vaccine proved to be 80 to 90 percent effective in combating the paralytic form of polio, and an effort to vaccinate children nationwide was promptly launched to head off outbreaks in the summer of 1955.
As it turned out, Steve Hansen had received the real vaccine and Jlene the placebo. That meant Jlene and other placebo recipients would get to be the first group inoculated in the official vaccination program. This was a mixed blessing for a little girl who’d passed out before all of her encounters with the nurse’s needle so far. The situation was exacerbated by the fact she had to ride the bus into Brigham City from Willard with a batch of notorious brothers who wouldn’t leave anyone alone.
“I was terrified,” she remembers all these years later. “While I was waiting in line, I was so afraid I would get polio from riding with those boys, talk about rascals, I’d pass out every single time.”
Jlene, you were indeed a little soldier and an unsung hero, and on behalf of all of us who benefited from the courage of the Polio Pioneers (basically every person on the planet then and since then), I’d like to offer a much belated and heartfelt public thank you. Your contribution to humanity should never be forgotten.