Disasters Class: Assignment 1

Even though tuberculosis and car accidents each killed more people than polio in the mid-20th century, polio remains an important historical case study–on several levels–for a “Disasters” class.

What changes did polio, and then its eradication, bring about in American society? Focusing either on technology (including public health/sanitation) or on social change, write a three paragraph response that has a clear, original argument.

Please use formal English and write as though you would in a short academic paper. Put a line of white space between your paragraphs–indentations do not show up in the comments.

Once you’re done with your response, go to Blackboard and find the two folders under Course Documents named “vaccine articles.” If your last name begins with a letter from A through H, read the 8 articles in the first folder. If your last name is from I to Z, read the 8 articles in the second folder. When you’ve finished reading those, return to the comments and find one comment (written by another person) that  has an argument which could be useful in analyzing or understanding one or more of the articles you just read.

Comments will not be visible right away. They will appear after the deadline for the assignment–tomorrow at 10am.

(For those not in the class, please note that this discussion is in response to the PBS documentary “The Polio Crusade” and the Smithsonian’s website on the history of polio.)

Note: Bracketed text in the comments is text I added or significantly corrected–in other words, alterations from the student’s original essay. My objective is to make your blog comments a useful learning resource for the class and anyone else on the web who may come across them later. I want to ensure we put as little misinformation out on the web as possible.


  1. Vance Echavarria

    The Polio outbreaks of the 20th century brought about social change in the ways with which disasters are dealt. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis attempted a new way of raising money and began its March of Dimes campaign. The March of Dimes reached out to the common man for donations, a dime from everyone. Instead of relying on large benefactors the entire country became its benefactor. This new form of charity became the norm for all charities [as the 20th century progressed].

    In the 1950s, Dr. Jonas Salk began testing his vaccines, which he fast tracked through clinical trials, skirting the issue of informed consent by using orphans and mentally handicapped people in institutions. His vaccines, though risky, were successful and entered into massive field trials of millions of children. The vaccines were again largely successful but some children who were vaccinated contracted Polio, and the Polio was traced back to a faulty batch of vaccine. These batches of contaminated vaccines required government intervention and [helped lead to] more government regulation for public health measures.

    The near-eradication of Polio was [as much] a social effort [as] a government program. The March of Dimes provided much of the funding for scientists, as well as educating and setting up volunteer bases in cities around the United States to collect and care for Polio victims. The government also provided funding for scientists, but the March of Dimes did more “leg work.” The government supported rather than led in the fight against Polio.

  2. Max Vitas

    The occurrence of Polio [outbreaks in the 1950s] brought about several important changes in American technology that not only helped people, but delivered a newly defined sense of order in the medical industry. Changes included: devices such as the iron lung, an apparatus to assist those affected by Polio who could not breath; a greater sense of communal hygiene (despite the fact that carcinogenic agents such as DDT were employed as a tool of sanitation); and, most importantly, better regulations in the creation and distribution of medicines and vaccines on a nationwide scale.

    One month after Dr. Salk’s dead virus vaccine was released to the public, there was a rather large outbreak of Polio in a group that had received it. It resulted in hundreds of cases of the virus, some fatal. Two batches* of the vaccine from Cutter Labs had accidentally contained live virus instead of the dead virus. A major accident that most likely contributed to the fear gripping the American public, this contaminated batch of vaccine lead to a series of new regulations and the reform of old regulations for the medical industry. These regulations were not limited to just the production and distribution of medicines however. Dr. Salk’s testing of his vaccine was immoral by today’s standards, relying non-consensual human experimentation in orphanages and institutions for the mentally ill. Practices like these led to new rules for scientific testing and research.

    While certain inventions and ways of living [affected those with Polio, it was the virus itself, and its large outbreaks in the 1950s, that brought about lasting, systemic changes. The random debilitation of polio led to such mass fear that the American public, medical researchers, and the government were all but forced to act swiftly and decisively. This] created a better life, with better regulations in the health industry, for those who came later.


  3. Eduard Glantsman

    Polio is fear. [Or at least it was, in mid-20th century America.] There are many diseases people are afraid of, but what makes polio particularly terrifying is the fact that it occurs in children more often. In a time when most Americans were focusing on building homes and families [in line with the particular style of the nuclear family idealized in the wake of World War II], the outbreak of a disease that seemingly targets children was especially heart-wrenching. People feared leaving their homes, or exposing their kids to germs. Paradoxically, this only made matters worse. [Children who weren’t exposed to the disease as babies, due to better sanitation, were more prone to be crippled by it when they were exposed to it later in life.] And this became a cycle; over-caution leading to sickness, which led to fear and, of course, more caution.

    But that wasn’t the real tragedy of the disease. When people isolate themselves, like many of the fearful at the time did, communities break down; the bonds of kinship that form when families meet suffer most in environments like the one that existed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These bonds, that were forged between neighbors and neighborhoods supporting the war effort, and which helped create the idea of the great American dream, were debased and ruined by waves of paranoia and fear. [Other examples like McCarthyism spring to mind.] The real tragedy of the American polio outbreaks was that they probably set back social progress by two decades. Furthermore, they likely set the tone for the mindset that permeated the Cold War era.

    There is always hope, however. In this case, it came well after Polio had all but been eradicated from America, in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Legal protection of, as well as physical accommodation for, disabled citizens grew in visibility and importance after midcentury polio outbreaks, [as those affected by the disease struggled to integrate into society]. Through many risks and trials American society has progressed, and the ADA marks a milestone on that journey.

  4. GabrielN

    Polio epidemics [in the mid-20th century] had a significant effect on American society. Although the virus was eventually eradicated, it left behind negative effects that devastated families and individuals throughout the United States. Deaths, grief, disabilities, and psychological trauma greatly affected families touched by the virus.

    As a devastating disease, polio took the lives of many children, parents, and friends. This tore apart many families such as the family of the woman in the documentary The Polio Crusade (PBS, American Experience) who lost her mother to polio when she was 6 years old. If polio did not kill you, it left you physically disabled. Not everyone could adjust as well as Larry Becker, who was able to move on despite being paralyzed in his arms.

    Psychological trauma was probably a big factor for both recovering victims and individuals. The trauma due to isolation, medication, machines (Iron Lungs), physical trauma, and loss affected an entire generation which may have resulted in stress, depression, and PTSD for many. For many there was no happy ending with a disaster like the polio epidemic. Families and friends were lost leaving behind trauma and grief. Yes, polio was eventually eradicated, but thousands of individuals still struggled and suffered long after the virus’s demise.

  5. SarineH

    Polio–the fear of contracting it, more specifically–played a very large part in American society in the mid-20th century. [Fear of polio motivated a desperate search for new knowledge about the disease.] This knowledge led to new developments in public health. Privately and publicly-funded health organizations emerged with new strength and new goals. Further research was conducted to produce Polio vaccines as efficiently as possible to vaccinate children in the US and beyond.

    Basil O’Connor, the strong force behind the highly effective March of Dimes organization (originally called National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis), decided to shift gears in terms of the organization’s cause. In 1958 the March of Dimes had a new goal: to advance a process to cope with birth defects. This cause was again changed in the 1990s to care specifically for premature babies. [Was this in the film? If not, please cite source.] These shifts in the March of Dimes goals show an evolution that ran parallel to significant problems in society. Through both government funding and personal fundraising, this organization exists to present day. [Indeed, the funding model of the March of Dimes required such changes. Focusing on small donations from many Americans, rather than big donations from a few, the organization needs to combat diseases seen as most current and pressing by most Americans. Otherwise it would not be able to sustain itself.]

    While Salk’s vaccine was the first victory, Sabin’s oral vaccine was highly used as well because it was cheap and easier to manufacture. It is the goal of health officials to eventually phase out the polio vaccine all over the world as one could contract the virus from the very thing created to prevent it. In order for this “phasing out” process to be successful it is necessary to be sure that all populations are, in fact, vaccinated [at a high enough percentage].

    Sorry for leaving out the source. Here it is:

  6. Jeremiah Nelson

    Even though polio was less deadly than car accidents and tuberculosis, polio had a more dramatic effect on the American people. In the mid 20th century, especially in the 1950’s, many Americans were contracting polio. Polio mainly strikes younger children, during the months of June through September. Symptoms of polio usually consist of: malaise, headache, sore throat, red throat, and vomiting. The scary part about polio at this time was that nobody knew what caused polio: perfectly healthy people were contracting polio overnight. This was the reason why polio received more attention than any other disease or social problem.

    Franklin Roosevelt, who would later become the president, contracted polio at the age of 39. Roosevelt hired Basil O’Connor to lead his polio organization. The reason why polio received more attention then anything else in the past was because O’Connor knew that to prevent polio, more funding was needed. Rather then collecting large amounts of money from a few people, which was hard due to the economic crisis, he tried to collect small amounts of money from many people. Thus, the March of Dimes was created. The March of Dimes was the first [fundraising campaign] of its kind to receive national coverage. O’Connor reached out to the public for help with funding for polio. In the year 1949 O’Connor claimed he was close to finding the cure for polio, but by 1951 had very little to show for it. [Moved sentence–paragraph breaks when you start a new thought.]

    [Technology helped lead to new discoveries.] O’Connor teamed up with a doctor named Jonas Salk. Salk had the same ambitions as O’Connor, so they became very good friends. Salk believed that he could find a cure with polio by using dead cells, instead of using live cells. Doctors like Albert Sabin [loudly denounced this idea.] Salk first tested the vaccine on monkeys and saw no evidence of the virus. On April 20th, 1954 [he started a trial that gave] the vaccine to an estimated two million children. On April 12, 1955 the vaccine was deemed a success, Salk had found the cure for polio. [But certain batches of the vaccine had been improperly prepared, leading to outbreaks of polio among those who received it. Nonetheless, Salk’s vaccine remained the technology of choice in the US until the 1960s.] In 1994 polio was deemed eradicated [in the United States, but it continues to seriously affect the lives of children and adults in other nations.]

  7. Burchell

    The [mid-20th century] polio epidemic [in the US], and polio’s subsequent eradication, changed America’s social structure in many fundamental ways. On a governmental/policy level, new [public] standards for vaccine research had to be established after failed [private-sector] regulation of vaccine-quality. This interplay of regulation and science changed the ethical boundaries and duties of those practicing science. Tainted vaccines also would have impacted how future political decisions were made regarding the distribution and screening of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals, as great trust was lost due to the horrors the faulty vaccines inflicted on recipients. Adding to the ethical issues surrounding regulation were the social tensions brought up with the use of human trials for Jonas Salk’s vaccine. The use of the mentally handicapped and orphans as test subjects in initial trials may have gone largely unnoticed, but the call for large numbers of children to participate worried many and had impacts on how the government sets standards for human trials. [Excised sentence–incorrect.]

    On a grassroots level, the banding together of American citizens to finance anti-polio measures led to strengthening social solidarity. Beloved actors and charismatic political leaders, [convinced the public that] donating even small amounts to the March of Dimes [was true to the American ideal of helping each other]. This type of shared experience and empathy would lead to stronger unity between Americans, as many disasters do. The particular idea of the March of Dimes (a focus on high quantities of small donations) also had the effect of changing the American view of charity. Instead of the rich financing aid efforts, those [in the middle and working] classes now felt empowered, [and required,] to help. This type of attitude persists today, with small donations being encouraged and gathered for relief of even global disasters. This movement of charity from [the middle and working classes] has helped to create social safety nets for other people, with aid now seen as a responsibility of the masses.

    Social repercussions of the polio epidemic also took a lateral path, affecting the ways individuals in communities view their responsibilities toward vaccinations and public health. Nowadays, children are required to be up to date with several types of vaccines in order to be allowed access to resources like public schooling. This type of coerced public health measure is possible due to the community at large accepting that [individuals are responsible to take actions that benefit society–and other people–on issues of health.] In order to protect our “herd immunity” we must all work together to maintain regimens of vaccinations. The general acceptance of this leads to a strong social [and legislative] pressure to conform to these vaccination norms, and thus we change the social contract between members of the community [as a result of new disease-fighting technologies]. The events of the polio epidemic fundamentally altered the relationship between public health and the social contract all Americans[–ideally–]abide by.

  8. dbinnion

    Polio has probably changed a great many things, but what stuck out to me was how it changed fundraising and the approach the masses take to widespread diseases. The [March of Dimes and their] decision to reach out to the many instead of the few allowed for a greater amount of money to be collected. This also made a great mass of people realize both how much they have, and how much they are capable of.

    The decision to [seek] small amounts of money from many was described by our sources (PBS, American Experience: The Polio Crusade) as a “gamble”. That makes me believe they did not know what the effect would be. They may have believed they would get the funding they needed, but they did not know for certain. The success of this fundraising endeavor resulted in the vast majority of fundraisers we know today reaching out to the masses for small donations. One of the most well known of these [for an animal welfare organization] is [often] played on TV with a soundtrack from Sarah McLachlan, [used to create emotional impact].

    The creation of this type of fundraising showed the American people both how much they have and how much they can do to help others. This had both a good result in the long term, and a bad one. The good is that many fundraisers were started and get enough donations to help a very large group of people both in America and abroad. The bad is that there are also scams that involve getting small amounts of money from the many, as well as awareness campaigns that take donations, but do little or nothing to help find a cure. [Another negative effect is that this model of charity threatens to place major responsibility on private citizens, and through them, private industry, instead of making disease eradication a governmental responsibility. This can affect–both negatively and positively–the nature and quality of disease research.]

    The vaccine itself, the problems with distribution of the vaccine, and the way Polio was presented to the people all affected many things and changed a great deal. My focus, however, is on the fundraising that was done. With the many similar things we have in our time, we can easily see how it created social change.

  9. Marie Hicks

    Folks, focus on these 8 comments for tomorrow’s class. I am working my way through grading and correcting the others. I am still trying to decide whether or not to post/approve every comment or not–so if you don’t see yours here, don’t worry. I will send out grades within the next few days. If you see bracketed text in the comments, that represents text I added or text I corrected (alterations from the poster’s original essay).

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