Polio ~ Anti-Semitism Almost Denied Its Cure

Disease – a topic most of us try to avoid. We consciously and unconsciously try to sidestep its reality. We don’t want to hear about it as it relates to ourselves, family, friends and colleagues – especially the youngest and eldest among us. I remember in the 1950s how the slightest mention of “POLIO” would shake family members and communities into a frenzy.

Polio (also known as poliomyelitis) was a highly contagious disease caused by a virus attacking the nervous system. That it was contagious only added to the social fear and trauma. Children younger than 5 years old were more likely to contract the virus, with paralysis a possible result. Schools and parent associations were not prepared to deal with the “contagiousness.” Neither were public places like amusements parks, summer camps, pools, beaches, theaters, birthday parties, playdates, locker rooms – even a Sunday church social and classroom could place a child at risk. Parents were on alert regarding any sign of fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting and fatigue. Sound familiar?!

Keep in mind that parents dealing with such horrific social fear, did not have the means to access 21st century knowledge and communication. They could not google symptoms, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure. Access to immediate medical treatment was restricted. The medical insurance industry was caught by surprise, scrambling to find pre-existing conditions. So were the countless victims who could not afford the treatments.

Physicians treating people in the acute, early stages of polio noticed that patients were unable to breathe as the virus paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. To assist patients with their breathing, devices were engineered called the Negative Pressure Ventilator, Iron Lung, The Tank Respirator and Pulmotor. The devices were 700-900lb pieces of equipment that assisted with breathing. The machines cost in the 1930s-1950s between $1,200 to $2,000; the price of a house.

Two genuine heroes: Dr. Jonas Salk on the left and Dr. Albert Sabin on the right.

Fortunately, two scientists dedicated their lives to develop vaccines that would alter the futures of millions of children throughout the world. The vaccine still is making a difference. The parents of the children they saved would never meet Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin. The parents of these children would never know the backstories of their Jewish families as immigrants or the challenges that these men faced as young students trying to enter medical schools. The world is grateful that each persisted and persevered.

On April 12, 1955, the world learned that Jonas Salk had developed an effective vaccination against polio. Thomas Francis Jr., chair of the Department of Epidemiology, announced one of the most significant breakthroughs in modern medical history at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium. It took courage – as the nation was suspect of the vaccine. The resistance came from the same playbook used by vaccine conspiracy theorists and deniers that we heard during our pandemic. The vaccine was politicized and radicalized.

So, Dr. Salk vaccinated himself, his wife and children. The nation followed. Leadership, courage and the greater good was on the line and he delivered. Dr. Jonas Salk is a genuine American hero. Another hero was Dr. Albert Sabin who developed the oral polio vaccine. Both men had much in common.

Dr. Jonas Salk had his own bout with another deadly American virus – Anti-Semitism. After City College, Salk enrolled in New York University to study medicine. He stated that, “tuition was “comparatively low, better still, NYU did not discriminate against Jews, … while surrounding medical schools had rigid quotas in place.”

During his years at New York University Medical School, Salk worked as a laboratory technician during the school year and as a camp counselor in the summer. He was a stellar student demonstrating academic prowess and decided to dedicate his medical practice to research. He forfeited lucrative personal financial gain by choice because of, the desire to help humankind in general rather than single patients.” The laboratory became the passion and direction for his life.

In his words, “I had an opportunity to spend time in elective periods in my last year in medical school, in a laboratory that was involved in studies on influenza. The influenza virus had just been discovered a few years before that. I saw the opportunity at that time to test the question as to whether we could destroy the virus infectivity and still immunize. And so, by carefully designed experiments, we found it was possible to do so.”

So what does all of this have to do with Diversity?! I could not help thinking that Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin could have given up on attending medical school because they were Jewish. How many times does a person have to resist and persist?

I could not help equate Polio in the 1950s with the deadly disease of anti-Semitism that plagues us to this day. I could not help thinking that such a disease is contagious, debilitates, cripples and that anti-Semitic tropes have spiked in the past 10 years.

Social -isms and phobias have the same pathological symptoms. They produce a social fever that reflects the infection within, the throat and vocal cords are silenced – anxiety, stress and fatigue wear the body down into submission. They corrupt and obstruct the social immune system of social justice. The poisonous viruses contaminate, destroying healthy norms of democracy, justice and equity. It weakens resiliency and attacks vital social principles. It preys overtly, covertly and aversively creating multigenerational trauma.

Unfortunately, a Dr. Salk or a Dr. Sabin can’t come to our rescue in 2022. Isms and phobias tend to metastasize from within, and the only cure is to do some sober, honest and painful introspection. No apologies, penance, thoughts and prayers necessary or requested. Just do the work on mind, heart, and spirit . . . and heal. And please, please don’t infect the children.

Lastly, I think about those children whose parent(s) were anti-Semitic ever wondering whether Dr. Salk or Dr. Sabin would have denied their vaccines to their children because they were not Jewish? That “love supreme” – for some isn’t reciprocal – is it?

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