One of my earliest memories is of standing in line, in some sort of meeting hall, waiting to be given a sugar cube soaked in polio vaccine. Polio was all but eradicated in America by the time I actually knew what it was, but its cultural effects still resonated: I remember Gumby, the little clay boy, being put in an iron lung (used to help polio victims breathe) in one episode; it was one of the most disturbing images of my childhood. And there was the March of Dimes, into which we were enlisted as student-citizens, and whose origins are told in “The Polio Crusade,” airing tonight as part of the PBS series “American Experience.”
It’s a neat, gripping social history of a disease that ranked behind only the atom bomb among midcentury American fears. Although it was not the most dreadful disease of its day -- paralysis was rare, and death very rare -- it played upon the public imagination as a despoiler of youth (and of the summertime, when it was most prevalent). Images here of very small children walking with leg braces and canes are still heartbreakingly potent.
Writer-director Sarah Colt emphasizes the Anytown aspects of the disease, centering her film in sitcom-clean hamlets and suburbs. (“My legs gave out as I was peddling my ice cream cart home for lunch,” one victim remembers.) Indeed, part of what made polio so fearful was its created-equal classlessness: “I have no prejudices,” says polio, given shape in an archival short film as a skulking shadow targeting white, black and Asian children. “I’m quite impartial.”
And as the malady that was thought to have lamed Franklin D. Roosevelt -- there is some dispute now as to whether it was in fact polio Roosevelt contracted -- it made a powerful enemy: The president personalized and, in a sense, nationalized the disease, drafting his old law partner Basil O’Connor to lead the fight. It was O’Connor’s inspiration to build support from millions of small donations: In its first year, and in the teeth of the Depression, the March of Dimes raised $1.8 million.
It was the March of Dimes that funded the research of Jonas Salk, whom O’Connor met on a transatlantic crossing and who shared his sense of haste. Salk’s fast-track vaccine, based on a “killed virus” (and first tested on orphans and the “feeble-minded”) was the first vaccine to go into production, though not without mishap: A bad batch actually infected recipients with polio.
Dismissive rival Albert Sabin -- whose slowly developed, orally administered “live vaccine” is the one I would have taken -- was tortoise to Salk’s hare.
Both won in the end. And what “The Polio Crusade” does not relate -- and it’s perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this story, almost unthinkable now -- is that neither patented his cure.
‘American Experience: The Polio Crusade’
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)