Those of you born after the mid-fifties missed one of the two biggest worries we had as children: Polio. (The other was being obliterated by a Russian atomic bomb.)
When I was a child, the March of Dimes spent a lot of money paying for iron lungs for children paralyzed by the poliomyelitis virus. I can remember being told to stay out of the ditches that ran deep after every rain or I might catch it, and, as it turned out, that wasn't altogether wrong.
As soon as the first cases showed up, the swimming pools all closed. Trucks sprayed DDT in thick clouds up and down our street every summer, to kill the mosquitoes that might carry the bug -- even though by the early 1950's, they knew better. The disease was contagious person-to-person, and you could get it from contaminated water or food.
So, tonight on PBS, on American Experience, there was a show about the conquest of polio, dealing with everything from F.D.R. to the development of the Salk and Sabine vaccines. And tonight, I learned, for the first time, that I was part of the biggest field test of an untried vaccine in U.S. history.
My mother signed me up.
After having tried the stuff on a relatively few children in orphanages and homes for the feeble-minded, sixty here, eighty there, eventually a couple thousand, the powers-that-were at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- not the government, but a private organization -- determined that a larger test was needed. So fearful were parents of their children getting the dread disease and wasting away, more than two million of them offered their kids as test subjects. Some of them never showed up or failed to sign permission forms, but my mother wasn't one of them. If it wasn't safe, why, the government wouldn't have allowed it, would they?
As one of the people on the show said, the idea of informed consent didn't exist in those days.
In the spring of 1954, I was in the first grade at Brookstown Elementary School, in Baton Rouge. One fine day, we were all loaded onto buses and driven to the public health center downtown, where we stood in line and had a syringe -- which looked huge to me then -- full of something injected into our deltoids. (There was a placebo involved in some areas, but Baton Rouge declined to be part of that, it was the real deal or nothing. I remember the fluid as being a bright, almost phosphorescent orange, but that might be unintentional hyperbole.)
We later went back for a booster.
Fortunately for me and the others in our city, the killed-virus vaccine worked. A year later, when the results showed an 80-90% effectiveness rate and the Salk vaccine went into general production, some of the labs accidentally released bad batches that were full of live viruses, and thousands of kids got sick, some were paralyzed, and some died.
Fascinating. Fifty years on, and I never knew we were part of a large-scale test. It would never happen today. Of course, those were the days when, if you had a bad sore throat, they would sometimes zap it with enough X-Rays to sterilize Moon Base Alpha. Or you could go to Sears, stand on a wooden platform in the shoe-department, and look down at a fluoroscopic view of your own feet, zapping them as much as you wanted while the shoe clerk was off fitting your brother for his new Buster Browns ...