The polio vaccine
If you haven’t read Annie Dillard, you might check her out, although my wife, Mary Lee, and I have found her a bit annoying. Mary Lee is reading her autobiography (which she doesn’t recommend) and just read me this section on polio and the Salk Vaccine:
We had all been caught up in the polio epidemic: the early neighbor boy who wore one tall shoe, to which his despairing father added another two soles every year; the girl in the iron lung reading her schoolbook In an elaborate series of mirrors while a volunteer waited to turn the page; my friend who limped, my friend who rolled everywhere in a wheelchair, my friend whose arm hung down, Mother’s friend who walked with crutches. My beloved dressed-up aunt, Mother’s sister, had come to visit one day and, while she was saying hello, flung herself on the couch in tears; her son had it. Just a touch, they said, but who could believe it? When Amy and I had asked, Why do we have to go to bed so early? Why do we have to wash our hands again? we knew Mother would kneel to look us in the eyes and answer in a low, urgent voice, So you do not get polio. We heard polio discussed once or twice a day for several years.
And we had all been caught up in its prevention, in the wild ferment of the early days of the Salk vaccine, the vaccine about which Pittsburgh talked so much, and so joyously, you could probably have heard the crowd noise on the moon. In 1953, Jonas Salk’s Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh had produced a controversial vaccine for polio. The small stories in the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette were coming out in Life and Time. It was too quick, said medical colleagues nationwide: Salk had gone public without first publishing everything in the journals. He rushed out a killed-virus serum without waiting for a safe live-virus one, which would probably be better. Doctors walked out of professional meetings; some quit the foundation that funded the testing. Salk was after personal glory, they said. Salk was after money, they said. Salk was after big prizes.
Salk tested the serum on five thousand Pittsburgh schoolchildren, of whom I was three, because I kept changing elementary schools. Our parents, like ninety-five percent of all Pittsburgh parents, signed the consent forms. Did the other mothers then bend over the desk in relief and sob? I don’t know. But I don’t suppose any of them gave much of a damn what Salk had been after….
Salk had isolated seventy-four strains of polio virus. It took him three years to verify the proposition that a workable vaccine would need samples of only three of these strains. He grew the virus in tissues cultured from monkey kidneys. The best broth for growing the monkey tissue proved to be Medium Number 199; It contained sixty-two ingredients in careful proportion.
This was life itself: the big task. Nothing exhilarated me more than the idea of a life dedicated to a monumental worthwhile task. Doctor Salk never watched it rain and wished he had never been born.
-from An American Childhood by Annie Dillard