A Look Back • Arrival of first polio vaccine in St. Louis in 1955 greeted with relief

Lesley Rabon, 8, a student at Jackson Park Elementary School in University City, receives one of the first free polio vaccinations in St. Louis on April 21, 1955. Giving the shot is Dr. Guy Magness, while school nurse Peggy Vaugh assists. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had bought 7.5 million doses to distribute to the nation's schools. The first wave of inoculations was for first- and second-graders. Post-Dispatch file photo
ST. LOUIS • Two leaders of a mothers’ campaign met the train downtown on April 21, 1955. An express worker handed them the first box of a miracle shipment.

“This is a wonderful victory,” said Loretto Gunn, co-chair of the Mothers March on Polio. “The mothers of St. Louis have been looking forward to this for years.”
Mothers, and everyone else, awaited the first cartons of Dr. Jonas Salk’s electric discovery, a vaccine to prevent the dreaded crippler and killer known as poliomyelitis. The baggage car from Indianapolis brought free cartons of Salk vaccine for schoolchildren in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Three days earlier, a truck from Springfield, Ill., delivered a shipment to Belleville, where the first shots were given at St. Henry’s Catholic School. On that day, the St. Louis group didn’t know when its vaccine would arrive. Such was the confusion in the harried effort to vaccinate the nation’s first- and second-graders as quickly as possible.
Polio is a viral disease transmitted by human contact. (It also was called infantile paralysis, even though it afflicted adolescents and adults.) Most people had no serious symptoms, but a few died or suffered permanent physical disabilities.
Epidemics periodically swept the country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the use of his legs as a young man due to the disease. Polio put children in bulky braces and iron lungs, the barrel-shaped machines that kept them breathing with air pressure to move their paralyzed diaphragms.
The list of symptoms was distressingly unhelpful — fever, tummy ache, aching muscles. If a child complained of a sore leg, parents didn’t sleep that night. In our age of medical wonders, it may be hard to appreciate the depth of the relief that greeted Salk’s vaccine.
Doctors in Europe had formed a diagnosis in the 19th century, but people could do little but fret. Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children opened at 700 South Euclid Avenue in 1924 to serve polio patients. For decades, its 100 beds usually were filled.
Before the vaccine, headlines announced new cases, deaths and the effort to raise money for research. Summer was considered the “polio season,” but that was a function of humans mingling, not temperatures. As clusters of cases erupted, officials closed schools and swimming pools. An epidemic in 1949 killed 64 people in the St. Louis area.
In August 1951, four of the five children of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schwane of Marthasville contracted polio. Two of them died within three weeks.
Salk led a research team in Pittsburgh that developed the vaccine. As final tests were conducted, drug manufacturers stockpiled serum. When approval was announced April 12, 1955, the rush was on. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes) bought enough vaccine for the free shots nationwide.
Newspapers ran long lists of vaccination times at schools, and more than 50,000 eligible St. Louis-area children lined up for shots. It took several years of vaccinating children and adults, but the number of cases eventually fell significantly. St. Louis reported its last naturally occurring case in 1963. Salk died in 1995 at age 80.


Dr. Jonas Salk (left at podium) explains development of the vaccine during a gathering on April 13, 1955, at the University of Michigan. With him are (center) Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., who led statistical research; and Basil O'Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which raised money for the research. Associated Press photo


St. Louis-area leaders of the campaign to combat polio greet a passenger train at Union Station on April 21, 1955, that brought the first shipments of free vaccine for first- and second-graders. Station employee Walter Goyda hands the first box to Bernard Dickmann, chairman of the St. Louis March of Dimes committee; and (left) Jessica Barco and Loretto Gunn, co-chairwomen of the local Mothers March on Polio. Behind the box is Dr. J. Earl Smith, city health commissioner. Dickmann also was St. Louis postmaster and a former mayor. Photo by William Dyviniak of the Post-Dispatch

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