Featured Science and Innovations
The Summer of '55: Boston
The very year the vaccine was announced, the state of Massachusetts suffered the worst polio epidemic in its history. The sad truth was that the vaccine wasn't yet available. In fact, the U.S. government had suspended mass vaccination for several weeks that May after cases of polio were reported to be caused by the vaccine. Sadly, mass vaccination had begun in Massachusetts that May in first and second grades. But a CDC investigation led by Dr. Alex Langmuir concluded some of the vaccine in distribution contained live polio virus and had caused some cases of polio. So Massachusetts suspended its immunization program until the following January.
The epidemic's epicenter was Children's Hospital Boston, which took in adults and children alike. Staff from nurses to laundry and maintenance workers, as well as devoted volunteers, toiled overtime in record heat (at one point hitting 104 degrees) just to keep up. Few questioned or complained. Children's became almost exclusively a polio hospital that summer. Panicked families overwhelmed its emergency admission facilities.
One Children's doctor vividly recalls evenings spent triaging people in their cars, using a floodlight. If a child seemed to have a true case of polio, the family could drive past the line, which stretched blocks beyond the hospital. Hospitals around the city loaned cribs, and patients sometimes had to wait outside the hospital until a space opened up on the wards. Two patients had babies while at Children's, one needing help with breathing throughout the birth.