Just a Spoonful of Sugar

It’s 1951. You’re 7 years old and you come home from school feeling punk. You have a sore throat. Your tummy hurts a bit. Your mother rests her cheek against your forehead and you hear her take a sharp breath. You have a fever, she says out loud. You can hear the tension in her voice though you’re just a child.

Your mom tells you to lay down on your bed and keep your distance from your siblings. You are wondering if this, by chance, will get you out of doing homework, and maybe school tomorrow. In the meantime, your mother is calling your family doctor. He or she likely tells your mom to bring down the fever with baby aspirin and a cold cloth and call him later if the fever doesn’t break.

This is a scenario that took place time and time again in the first part of the 20th Century. Of course, Baby Boomers have already figured out that Mom was worried that her child had polio. Polio is a now-mostly-eradicated contagious disease that plagued the world in the first half of the century. I’m sure it existed prior to that, but our parents battled with it in the 40s and 50s. The disease struck mostly young children, and like COVID, had a lot of different symptoms that matched those of the common cold. Still, my sister Bec tells me that our parents were terrified every time one of their kids had the sniffles.

I have been thinking about polio for the past few days as I’ve been working on arranging Bill’s vaccination. I was interested in learning how long it took to finally get a vaccine — the vaccine that all of us Baby Boomers received. Research on a vaccine began in the mid-1930s. After years of work, American scientist Jonas Salk finally had his vaccine approved for use by the general public in 1955. It took 20 years from beginning to public availability. That sort of put the whole COVID fast tracked vaccine in perspective for me.

Salk’s vaccine required a shot in the arm. In general, people don’t like shots in the arm or anywhere else. And since kids were the primary victims and carriers, they were the most likely to receive that loooooooog needle. But the parents were so relieved to have the vaccine, they didn’t give a hoot about their kids’ sadness and/or anger.

Then in 1961, along comes Albert Sabin, a scientist from what is now Russia but was then Poland (I tell you that in order to push back a bit on the Polish jokes that annoyed my own mother), who invented an oral vaccine. That meant no more shots in the arm for our poor kiddies.

I’m sure most Baby Boomers remember receiving the Sabin vaccine. Our family trekked to the local public high school gymnasium in 1961 (along with every other person in our 10,000-person town. There we received our vaccine, in the form of a sugar cube. Ain’t science great? Truly, a spoonful of sugar changed our lives.

Polio went the way of the dinosaur, or at least in this country. Both Salk and Sabin became part of the history books, as they should. Still, while they made history, I’m thinking creating a vaccine for a worldwide pandemic in one year is historic. I hope I live long enough to read about this time in our lives in my great grandkids’ history books.

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