Polio vaccinations, 1955 and 1964

Young Tom Blahofski was reluctant to take his sugar cube containing the Sabin polio vaccine on March 8, 1964. (Courtesy State Journal-Register; digital reproduction from microfilm)

First- and second-graders topped the priority list when local public health officials prepared to deliver the first polio vaccinations in 1955. The program was a success, despite an unplanned delay in scheduled “booster” shots.

Children were among those most susceptible to polio, which was often called “infantile paralysis” in the 1940s and ’50s. The danger to young victims made polio perhaps the most feared disease of the mid-20th century.

In Sangamon County, the first doses of the Salk vaccine, which was administered by injection, were given on April 25, 1955. Students targeted that first day attended Ridgely, Sand Hill, Butler, Arnold, Dubois, Cottage hill, Palmer and Matheny schools in Springfield and Auburn, Divernon, Williamsville and Mechanicsburg outside the city.

Vaccinations continued at other schools through the week. The vaccine doses were provided by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and administered by volunteers, so the shots were free. Parents had to sign consent forms before their children could be vaccinated.

The Illinois State Journal explained the procedure:

The shots will be administered in the arm muscles; will take a few seconds for each child; and will be given in the same manner in which shots are routinely administered. Parents are asked not to accompany their children.

The first round of immunizations reached 5,015 first- and second-graders; another 315 who had been ill or otherwise were unable to be vaccinated that week received their shots in a “pickup” program two weeks later. Springfield public health superintendent Dr. J. Marvin Salzman (1906-90), who headed the program countywide, said the immunization effort reached 93 percent of the city’s youngest students and 90 percent of those in the county.

The Salk vaccine required three rounds of vaccinations to provide full immunity, and officials originally scheduled the first booster shot for May 23. In between April 25 and May 23, however, a small number of children around the U.S. contracted polio as an apparent result of receiving the shots. Officials said that was due to poor manufacturing methods by some producers, so the second round of vaccinations was delayed for six months.

Sangamon County children finally got their booster shots in a second blitz that began Oct. 31 (the new school year had already started, so the booster round targeted second- and third-graders).  Officials said, however, the first immunizations had been so effective that no Sangamon County children who received the April vaccinations contracted the disease.

“Questions have been asked as to the safety of the vaccine,” (Salzman) said. “There were no reactions nor polio in Sangamon county as the result of the first inoculation in which more than 5,200 children received shots.

“During the period in which the U.S. public health service restricted use of the polio vaccine, the methods of manufacture and testing were under inspection and improvements were made where necessary. Thus, we feel, the present vaccine is safer than that used in (April).”

The injectable Salk vaccine was replaced in 1964 by the Sabin vaccine, which was administered by mouth using cubes of sugar. That time, 90,000 people – 60 percent of all Sangamon County residents, adults as well as children – received the vaccine on a single day, March 8, 1964, at 11 “feeding stations” in the public schools.

Journal reporter Frank Messersmith described how it went at Edison Middle School in Springfield, where his family was inoculated.

(T)here was a feeling of excitement and anxiousness mixed with a touch of relief.

Standing in a line which stretched the length of the building were representatives of all age groups. One man and his wife had their family of seven standing in the line, looking like a descending staircase.

The line, long as it was, moved with a speed unusual for large public gatherings. The actual immunization inside the feeding room was over so fast, people were still dissolving the sugar in their mouths while walking home or to their cars.

The vaccine was squirted out of eye-droppers onto sugar cubes, and the cubes were put into little white cups. The people, as they passed the table, would pick up a cup and swallow the cube inside.

Babies too young to trust with a cube had the vaccine administered directly from the eye-dropper into their mouths.

Later in the afternoon, the Edison station exhausted its supply of sugar cubes, but this didn’t stop the program very long, as doctors and workers began administering the vaccine in cups of chocolate milk and distilled water.

Creation of the vaccines has virtually wiped out polio in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world.

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