The War on Polio

The vaccine trial that curbed a nationwide epidemic started at Franklin Sherman Elementary School.
McLean student Robert Henninger receives the polio vaccine in 1954.

McLean student Robert Henninger receives the polio vaccine in 1954. Photo by Getty Images

Gail Batt still remembers when the boy who sat behind her in school disappeared. “They left his desk empty,” she recalls, “and everyone was scared to go by the desk.” It was 1953, and her classmate at Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean had been stricken by polio.

Americans had long been terrified of the disease that in 1921 left Franklin Delano Roosevelt paralyzed. In the 1940s and 1950s, waves of summer polio epidemics prompted parents to keep their children indoors, away from movie theaters and swimming pools where they might catch the virus. In 1952 alone, more than 20,000 Americans—about half of them children under 10—contracted cases serious enough to cause permanent paralysis or death. Some of the survivors were confined to iron lungs, long metal tubes that encased the whole body below the head and helped the patient to breathe. But on April 26, 1954, the Salk polio vaccine began to change everything. The first healthy child to be inoculated in the U.S. was a 6-year-old boy at Franklin Sherman Elementary School.

The choice of the McLean school was almost by accident. The vaccine trials had been set to begin in Washington, D.C., but health officials there backed out after a famous broadcaster, Walter Winchell, publicized his belief that the vaccine was dangerous. Organizers then contacted Fairfax County, which agreed to offer the shots to first- and second-graders in its school system whose parents had volunteered their kids to participate.

McLean physician Richard Mulvaney administered the first shot. “I could hardly [make my way to the school],” he would later tell reporters in an interview shortly before his death in 2006, “because of all the television wires, cameras, and extra personnel who were there to record it all.”

Batt, who’s now 70 and lives in Arlington, was one of three students from Chesterbrook Elementary who traveled to neighboring Franklin Sherman to receive the vaccine that day. “I was really proud to be included,” she says, “because it meant you got to leave school [to get the shot]. There was a big boy, a third-grader, in front of me, and he fainted. And I remember thinking to myself, Don’t faint!” For her fortitude, Batt received an ice cream sundae.

According to the March of Dimes, which sponsored the vaccine trial, some 4,000 children received the Salk vaccine at Franklin Sherman. The trial grew to include 1.8 million children. A year later, the vaccine was declared safe and effective. Over the next four years, the number of polio cases in the U.S. fell by almost 90 percent.

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