Today it’s COVID-19. 70 years ago, it was a different virus that led to a new vaccine

·3 min read

For many, the one bright spot in 2020 was the development of several vaccines that could bring the Covid-19 pandemic under control.

Seventy years ago, the country was in a similar state of alarm, as an unexpected surge in polio cases threatened children and young adults. Polio couldn’t be cured, just treated. At its height, the disease disabled more than 35,000 people per year in the United States.

No one knew how the poliovirus would affect those who caught it. Some, like Fort Worth businessman Tim Ward, who was 12 when he contracted polio, were sick enough to be hospitalized but recovered with minimal or no paralysis. Others died.

Fifteen-year-old Judy Parman developed polio in August 1946, and it paralyzed her lungs and arms. She spent time in an iron lung before being weaned off it and dying at home in her sleep in April of 1947. Many Fort Worth baby boomers remember not being allowed to go outside during the summer. Some spoke about how their bouts with polio left them with a limp, while others recalled friends who had to wear braces or were so debilitated that they required constant care.

Polio didn’t just strike children. Evelyn Marie DeBevoise, a mother of four, was diagnosed in July 1952 at the age of 25. She spent a year in City-County Hospital (now JPS), with eight months encased in an iron lung and four months on a less cumbersome chest respirator. Although she was able to return home with the respirator, DeBevoise did not see her two oldest children for two years. Paralyzed from the neck down, she spent most of her time watching television until her death in 1977. In spite of her disability, DeBevoise, who volunteered for the March of Dimes before her diagnosis, allowed herself to be photographed to raise awareness about polio’s deadly nature and cost.

Evelyn Marie DeBevoise, flanked by Gussie Lee Hellman (left) and Elizabeth Rumph (right), talks about photos of her family posted on her iron lung door. DeBevoise, hospitalized at City-County Hospital (now JPS), contracted polio in 1952 at age 25 before vaccines were developed.
Evelyn Marie DeBevoise, flanked by Gussie Lee Hellman (left) and Elizabeth Rumph (right), talks about photos of her family posted on her iron lung door. DeBevoise, hospitalized at City-County Hospital (now JPS), contracted polio in 1952 at age 25 before vaccines were developed.

Many scientists worked anxiously to develop a vaccine, and a three-shot trial of the one developed by Jonas Salk began in mid-1954. In Tarrant County, approximately 25% of second-graders received the vaccination as part of that trial. The vaccine was reported to be safe and 90% effective on April 12, 1955. Tarrant County received 750 pounds of the inject-able Salk vaccine at Carswell Air Force Base on April 16.

Barbara Ellen Watson, a fourth-grader at West Side Elementary School in Arlington, inaugurated the full vaccination program. She received the first of the free shots on April 18, and her understandable grimace was recorded for posterity. Shots for Fort Worth students started on May 3.

The roll-out was slow, but steady. There was some hesitancy, mostly because one manufacturer, Cutter Laboratories, failed to follow production rules and made a vaccine that led to a few polio cases. By 1957, the number of polio cases nationwide had been reduced from 58,000 to 5,600 annually. Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, which became commercially available in 1961, was part of the regular childhood vaccination schedule.

Memories of receiving the polio vaccine via drops on a sugar cube are widespread, no matter where one lives. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States. It’s a goal attained because of the success of the vaccination program – and a lesson we should all learn.

Carol Roark is an archivist, historian, and author with a special interest in architectural and photographic history who has written several books on Fort Worth history.

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