Fighting Ghosts

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Some years ago I traveled to Boston to meet for the first time the filmmaker Henry Hampton, who had just completed the magisterial “Eyes on the Prize” series for PBS. I knew from a mutual friend that he had contracted infantile paralysis in his youth, and when I got to his office I saw that he wore a brace on one leg and that when we started off for lunch he was not altogether steady on his feet. I’m not either, and for the same reason: I got polio in July of 1950, just two weeks before Dr. Jonas Salk formally applied to the March of Dimes for a grant to “undertake studies with the objective of developing a method for the prevention of paralytic poliomyelitis by immunologic means.”

But neither of us said a word about disability as we stumped our way together down the stairs, worked our laborious way in and out of Henry’s car, negotiated a high curb, and finally entered the restaurant he’d chosen for us. It was on two levels. There were plenty of empty tables downstairs, but we ignored them and without saying a word headed directly for the stairs instead, using the railing to haul ourselves up hand over hand, puffing and blowing while pretending to each other that no extra effort was being made.

Finally, winded, I stopped halfway up. “Henry,” I said, “why the hell are we doing this?” He started to laugh. So did I, and so loudly that other diners began to stare, wondering what we two lurching climbers could possibly have to laugh about. We ignored them, made it to the top together, and have been friends ever since.

As Tony Gould (himself a polio) makes clear in his vivid new book A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors , we were acting the way polios have traditionally acted. Gould’s book is a compendium of polio lore that includes a concise history of the disease, a lively account of the struggle to find a vaccine, and reminiscences of what life has been like for some of its most badly damaged survivors, both here and in the author’s native England.

I suppose I am hopelessly prejudiced, but the tale of polio’s conquest—also told well several years ago by Jane S. Smith in Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine —seems to me to be one of the great American success stories of this century. Its outlines are familiar to anyone of a certain age. Polio first hit the United States with full force in the summer of 1916. Six thousand Americans died of it that year, most of them children, and at least twenty-seven thousand more were permanently affected. Thereafter, for thirty-nine straight summers, American mothers lived in daily fear for their children, fear compounded by the fact that at first no one even knew what caused the disease, let alone how it might be prevented. Italian immigrants were blamed early on. So were cats, ice cream, automobile exhaust; one theory held that sharks had inhaled poison gas drifting seaward from the Western Front, then somehow brought it with them all the way across the Atlantic.

“We were fighting ghosts,” my own mother remembers, and we might still be dealing with those phantoms had the thirty-nine-year-old Franklin Roosevelt not come down with the disease in 1921. His well-publicized struggle against paralysis helped remove its stigma, and his decision to invest most of his personal fortune in a treatment center at Warm Springs, Georgia, led to the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1937, with Basil ’Connor, his law partner, as its unpaid president. O’Connor was a tough Boston Irishman utterly uninterested in anything but results, who once summed up his leadership style in a single line: “Committees are to help you do what you want to do, and if the committee doesn’t do it, fire them and get a new one!”

Together he and Roosevelt mobilized the American public to wage all-out war on polio. There is a nice irony in the fact that FDR, often accused of making Americans too dependent on government, was in his lifetime “Polio Crusader Number One,” the living symbol of the national campaign that yielded the greatest triumph of voluntarism in our history. The federal government played no part whatsoever in polio’s conquest. (In fact, had today’s regulatory agencies existed when Salk was at work, much of his early vaccination of children would have been illegal.) Alternately cajoled and goaded by the relentless O’Connor, giants of industry contributed their time and talent to the cause (it became a crusade for O’Connor after his own daughter came down with the disease). So did advertising agencies, filmmakers, radio stars (it was Eddie Cantor who came up with the notion of a “March of Dimes” that inundated the White House with coins), and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. O’Connor was so proud of his organization’s determinedly amateur status that when he was urged in 1954 to hire professional clerks to do all the paperwork created by massive field-testing of the Salk vaccine, he angrily refused. “Our people will do it free,” he said proudly, “and do it better.”