His grandmother fought for polio vaccines in Portsmouth. His senior project looks at parallels to coronavirus.

Louise Rose was intent on getting vaccines to everyone who needed them.

Access to vaccinations wasn’t equitable in her home city of Portsmouth, so she worked to open clinics in underserved areas to address the imbalance.

Some people were hesitant to get this new shot, but she ran an educational campaign, blanketing local media with the facts about the vaccine’s safety and importance to stop viral spread.

The story may sound like it’s pulled from the page of last week’s newspaper. But Rose’s story happened in the 1950s. And the virus she targeted was polio.

It attacked the nervous system and caused an often debilitating disease called poliomyelitis that had been ravaging the nation for decades.

Now Louise’s grandson, 22-year-old journalism student Brendan Rose, is drawing inspiration from her story. It will form the basis of his senior thesis project, comparing Portsmouth’s polio vaccine drive to current day grassroots efforts in the city related to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It was this incredible moment in history. And it’s such a great opportunity to talk about both polio and COVID-19,” he said. “There are these really incredible parallels.”

Tireless advocate

Louise was born in Winchester in the late 1920s. By her mid-20s, she was living in Portsmouth with her husband LeRoy and their first baby, Brendan’s father. LeRoy Rose was a guidance director at Cradock High School, according to newspaper archives.

At the time, polio had been emerging in towns across the U.S. for half a century, gaining steam in the 1940s. The disease even afflicted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many who were infected never had symptoms or recovered quickly. But like it did with Roosevelt, the virus could cause paralysis, especially among children.

“Parents were frightened to let their children go outside, especially in the summer when the virus seemed to peak,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1955, federal officials approved a polio vaccine, and vaccinations slowly spread across the country.

Louise Rose got involved with polio vaccination efforts in Portsmouth in 1956 as a member of the Junior Women’s Club and March of Dimes, a nonprofit founded by President Roosevelt to combat polio.

Soon she was heading the most active vaccination drive in the state, according to documents she later saved.

Search her name through local newspaper archives of the time — her married name, that is — and hundreds of results tell the story of what came next.

“Mrs. LeRoy Rose is ‘Outstanding Junior of Year,’” reads a Virginian-Pilot headline from 1957. “Mrs. LeRoy Rose Named State Polio Adviser,” says another later that year.

She went on radio programs and spoke at community clubs and luncheons. She raised money for the March of Dimes.

Most important were the clinics set up to distribute thousands of free polio vaccines.

Her priorities were “to educate children, to raise money and to get kids vaccinated,” Brendan said.

According to the 1957 Pilot article about her becoming a polio adviser, Louise “organized the vaccine education program which resulted in the first mass adult anti-polio inoculation clinic in the state and among the first in the nation.”

They started vaccinating in the homes of members of Louise’s women’s club. Then they set up at schools in Portsmouth and Norfolk County, focused on reaching Black students at a time when the system was still officially segregated.

Because it was organized by a group of women, though, Louise’s vaccine program was initially frowned upon by the male-dominated local medical establishment.

An apparent women’s club newsletter from the time references the Juniors having to “win the respect of the Medical Group after the somewhat icy, stiff atmosphere which prevailed when the two began working together on the clinics.”

In April 1957, Louise got a letter from Basil O’Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, thanking her for her “splendid efforts” as Portsmouth-Norfolk County campaign director for the March of Dimes.

“Surely the effort that went into the campaign just past completely overshadows anything that has ever been done,” O’Connor said. “You have amply demonstrated your awareness of the continuing needs in the fight, and, I am sure, have convinced the great majority of your citizens of those needs too.”

After the success of the polio clinics, Louise got the opportunity to work full time for the March of Dimes, but turned it down to return to housewife duties, Brendan said. She and LeRoy then moved to Williamsburg.

Brendan never got to speak with his grandmother in detail about the project. Louise Rose died in January at 92 in a New Jersey memory care facility, after several years of worsening dementia.

She’d led a long and interesting life after the years fighting polio, Brendan said, including working for a company that made prosthestics for women who had major surgery due to breast cancer, which she herself survived.

The project

Brendan Rose grew up in New York City and attends the State University of New York at Purchase.

He’d originally selected a different topic for his senior project, but one day driving with his father, they got to talking about the pandemic.

Brendan had just read an article about potential problems with ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for people of color.

“We realized this was a question during polio as well,” he said. “It’s so interconnected and so similar, that we started really diving into it. And that’s how it started.”

His grandmother had kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings, photos, letters, documents and other memorabilia from her time fighting polio.

The records are now key to Brendan’s project.

“Those clinics were actually a really important moment in the history of public health, and give a really good opportunity to tell the story of how the polio vaccine was deployed, and how the polio vaccine was able to be brought to communities that didn’t have access,” he said.

He’s visited Portsmouth a handful of times and plans to again in mid-July, speaking with local COVID-19 vaccine organizers.

But he’s hoping to get in touch with more, particularly community organizers and longtime city residents who may remember the polio clinics of the mid-20th century.

“Something that I realized relatively quickly, learning about coronavirus and comparing it to all this information I learned about polio is that some of those same questions about equity and access still exist,” he said.

His senior project — which will take the form of a magazine-length story — is due in December. It’s been an emotional experience to learn more about what his grandmother was doing when she was just a few years older than he is now, he said.

“While I’m writing it as a journalist, it is still a really personal story.”

If you’re interested in being a source for Brendan Rose’s senior project, you can contact him at brendan.rose@purchase.edu.

Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, katherine.hafner@pilotonline.com