By Michael Dorman
More than 4,000
monkeys a month were flown during the mid-1950s from India and the
Philippines to a desolate laboratory along the bank of a small river near
Bluffton, S.C. Those monkeys would play pivotal roles in helping provide
the vaccine used in the largest polio-vaccination test program in the
United States -- conducted on Long Island in 1954.
The monkeys' kidneys were removed and the organs' cells were injected
with polio virus. The cells then multiplied, and the virus was
scientifically treated so that it would not transmit the disease. The
process produced a vaccine that, when injected into humans, would develop
antibodies designed to fight polio and its crippling effects.
On April 27, 1954, about 15,000 Suffolk children began rolling up their
sleeves for the first of three shots in a nationwide test of the polio
vaccine, developed by Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh
Medical School. Six days later, Nassau began inoculating 50,000 children.
Half the children in each county received Salk vaccine. The other half got
a harmless liquid, enabling medical researchers to gauge the vaccine's
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the terror posed by polio at the
time. Parents lived in constant dread that their children would be
stricken -- perhaps killed, perhaps condemned by paralysis to pass their
days in iron-lung machines. Many had grown up with constant reminders of
polio's ravages in the person of the nation's most celebrated victim of
the disease, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some parents who could
afford it took their children to summer resorts each year to remove them
from crowded urban and suburban neighborhoods reputed to provide breeding
grounds for polio.
Although there was concern among parents about the safety of the
injections, more than 90 percent of the eligible children turned out to
receive their shots on Long Island. Initially, the injections were given
to children in the first, second and third grades but eventually were
provided to older children and adults. Some children involved in the
initial tests smiled self-consciously as the needles slid into their arms.
Others cried. Many held their arms afterward. All received lollipops as
rewards for their fortitude.
Physicians and nurses from throughout both counties volunteered their
services in visiting schools to administer the shots. At the Meadowlawn
School in East Meadow, school nurse Ruth Foote supervised the vaccination
of 540 children. As one small boy emerged from a booth after receiving his
shot, he told a friend: ``You know, that doctor was telling me jokes --
trying to take my mind off the needle.''
Another student, 9-year-old Danny Billings, wore an unworried
expression -- even a trace of a smile -- as he received his shot at the
Meadowlawn School. But Ellen Engel, 7, yowled as she received hers at
Central School in Long Beach. Robert Lange, 7, his broken right arm in a
cast, gamely offered his left so Dr. Michael Lorenzo could inject him with
vaccine at the North Side School in East Williston.
Nassau and Suffolk medical officials said they were confident the
vaccine was safe. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,
sponsoring the tests, pointed out that Jonas Salk's own children had taken
the vaccine along with 8,000 Pittsburgh children and there had been no ill
A second shot would be injected a week after the first and a third shot
four weeks later. Before being used, each batch of vaccine was tested in
three independent laboratories to ensure that it could not transmit the
disease. It was also tested to be sure it contained no live virus causing
any other disease.
As had been predicted, the injection program occasionally ran into
problems. There were, for example, periodic shortages of vaccine. Nassau
officials at one point proposed stretching the supply by giving only one
injection to each child -- using the rest to spread the coverage to
additional children. But the plan was reversed when a national committee
of 33 polio experts expressed unanimous disapproval.
Even when shots were taken, some recipients still contracted polio and
small numbers even died. In 1955, a Bethpage child, Donita Lent, became
the first in the state to contract polio after receiving one shot of
vaccine. Bruce Spiegel, an 8-year-old second-grader at Oceanside Central
School, came down with a mild case of polio a short time later. Bruce had
received two injections. He initially ran a high fever, then complained
that his left arm felt ``awfully heavy.'' He was taken to a doctor, who
immediately hospitalized him. Relatives said they were sure he would have
suffered a more severe case of polio if he had not taken the two shots.
In August, 1959, a Sayville mother became the first person on Long
Island to die of polio after taking three shots of Salk vaccine. Mary
Fleming, 38, died in Southside Hospital in Bay Shore two days after coming
down with bulbar polio -- the most serious form of the disease. She, her
husband and their five children had all taken the vaccine. That same week,
Nassau Health Commissioner Earle Brown disclosed that eight children in
his county who had taken Salk shots had contracted polio during that year.
``No vaccine is 100 percent perfect,'' Brown said. ``But this vaccine, I
have faith in it.''
There seemed good reason for such faith. The vaccine clearly worked.
During a typical pre-Salk year, 1950, there were 309 reported polio
cases and 19 deaths in Nassau. By the time of Mary Fleming's death eight
months into 1959, there were only 10 cases and no additional deaths on all
of Long Island. Throughout New York State, there were 1,910 polio cases
and 187 deaths in 1950. In 1960, there were only 138 cases and 26 deaths
Eventually, polio would be all but eradicated in the United States.
Long Island health officials said recently that no polio cases have been
reported to them in at least three years. Jonas Salk, who died of a heart
ailment in 1995 at the age of 80, surely deserves most of the credit. But
some say a word of gratitude is due those thousands of monkeys that helped
bring Salk's vaccine to the world.
Michael Dorman is a freelance