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Category:  General History
Published:  November, 2007

When The World Cheered As One

By Al Owens
I’d like to think that historic events were well organized in the same way they’re laid out in history books – but they never are. History simply doesn’t unfold neatly. Momentous events always seem to be interspersed with other events that are still noteworthy – but have been pushed aside over time.

The first two weeks of April in 1955 – is an illustration of that. I was only seven years-old back then, so I was most likely unaware of the swirl of important news that impacted people around the world. The closest I ever got to news in those days was the Sunday funnies.

So while in England, when Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill announced he was stepping down as Prime Minister, I was more concerned about what was happening to Dagwood Bumstead.

In Milwaukee, a young member of the Milwaukee Braves, New Castle, Pennsylvania’s Chuck Tanner, did something few major league baseball players had ever done. The very first time he stepped up to the plate as a major leaguer – and on the very first pitch – he hit a homerun.

You could go to supermarket and buy a pound of bacon on sale for 43 cents that week. A brand new raincoat could cost as little as $4.95.

Wilkinsburg’s Dick Groat took some time away from the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’d joined the Army and he was named to the Armed Forces All Star Basketball team. (The five time major league All Star, had also been a two time All American basketball player at Duke University)

Meanwhile, the manufacturers of something called the Bendix Duomatic All-in-one Washer/Dryer were busily trying to convince housewives they had the answer to their laundry day needs.

According to their newspaper ad, the Duomatic was “The washer that turned itself into a dryer,” when the wash was done. Problem is, in the same ad they presented a young bride in her wedding gown – carrying a basket full of laundry. The caption read: “Here comes the bride.”

There were tragic stories that spring that seem as if they were lifted from today’s headlines.

In Shaler, the police were investigating the shooting death of a sixth grader. He’d been found in possession of two 32 caliber revolvers.

In the Philippines, an earthquake took the lives of 164 people.

Yet, in Fayette County there were several good reasons to celebrate. A future All American, South Union’s Chuck Davis, was named to the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph’s All WPIAL Class A (basketball) Team. He was the only unanimous selection to the team - which is even more noteworthy, because he was only a junior at the time.

Also, in Fayette County, I was among the thousands of young children who lined up to get the first of three doses of the polio vaccine.

Nearly 10 years to the day after the Allies secured World War II victories in Japan and in Germany – on April the 12th, 1955 The Pittsburgh Press boldly announced another victory. The banner headline that day simply read: POLIO IS CONQUERED.

Polio. A mysterious disease scientists believe had existed before recorded history had also, until that spring in 1955, been on the rise. (From 27 thousand cases in 1916, to an outbreak that led to more than 57 thousand recorded cases in 1952)

By contrast, the recent revelations about the deadly MRSA infection indicate a much higher disease and death rate than that of polio in the early 1950’s. Yet, panic had enveloped the country back then, and for one reason. Polio attacked children. In fact, polio was also known as infantile paralysis. Its name alone produced shudders.

The announcement on the 12th of April represented something that never happened before, nor has happened since. Every man, woman and child on the planet earth was told a threat to the very fabric of mankind – was defeated. It was truly something that was cheered around the world. No other event, I can think of, has ever been met with such universal approval.

And to think, it all began an hour’s drive from Uniontown – at the University of Pittsburgh.

It was there, on Labor Day weekend in 1952 that an unassuming doctor and medical researcher had discovered that children who had already contracted polio, showed the disease did not advance – after he had injected them with a sample vaccine.

By the spring of 1955, 1,829,916 children across the country had been given trial samples of the vaccine. By April, that researcher was heartened by the positive effects of his work, but he was still embarrassed that it was named after him – the Jonas Salk vaccine.

On April 11th, Pittsburgh hockey fans were delighted to open their morning newspapers to find that the Pittsburgh Hornets had won the championship of the American Hockey League.

But they couldn’t open their newspapers without first seeing the good news on the front page. The Detroit Times scooped all of the other news organizations, by announcing the efficacy of the Salk vaccine, a day before the planned official announcement at the University of Michigan. The serum had produced a 90% success rate.

Yet, it was the following day that will long be remembered. “The H-Bomb in Medicine’s Preventive War,” one story said. Another headline said it all: It’s Official. Salk Vaccine OK. Rated 80 to 90%.

With the announcement came a monumental frenzy to get the serum to as many children as possible. The federal government licensed the vaccine immediately. Doses of the vaccine were delivered and administered a mere 16 hours after that.

Of the 469,652 children in Pennsylvania alone who were eligible to get the first batch of serum, 9,030 Fayette County children were among them.

Within days, newspapers across the country delighted in showing front page pictures of grimacing young school children – who were about to be emancipated from the prospects of a dreadful disease.

Each child would be given three doses of the vaccine. Unfortunately, those children who had already contracted it, could not be cured by it.

Two years after that day, the rate of new cases of polio dropped by as much as 90%. The last recorded case of polio in this country was 1991. Thanks to the Salk vaccine and a later oral vaccine developed by medical researcher Albert Sabin in 1962, the world has nearly been rid of the disease.

Salk continued to work after his discovery. He was working on an AIDS vaccine when he died in California in 1995.

Next month he will be posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Curiously, there is still no known cure for polio. Thankfully, because of the vision of Jonas Salk we don’t need one.