We’ve been here before

Welcome to two Americas—and two American health crises: the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 and the polio epidemic of 1916. Now, as then, there are no proven cures. Now, as then, there is no vaccine. Now, as then, there is plenty of hooey going around—but there’s a lot to learn from that long-ago tragedy too.

Comparisons are more commonly drawn between the 1918 flu pandemic and today, but the polio outbreak is actually the more apt one. Today, we hear nonsense about injecting disinfectant into the body to battle coronavirus. Back then, it was hanging mothballs around your child’s neck to prevent the scourge popularly known as infantile paralysis. Today, there’s the hyping of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to battle a disease it was not meant to battle. Back then, it was mixing a paste made of wintergreen, Russian thyme, and the oils of rosemary, cajeput and wood—and rubbing them into the muscles.

If you think sheltering in place in your climate-controlled, wi-fi-streaming, cable-equipped home seems tough, try doing it in a blistering summer before there was air-conditioning or Internet—or even television.

A boy is vaccinated during a field trial of the Salk polio serum in 1954 in New York City

As Mark Twain is said to have said, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, and the two epidemics, 104 years apart, are forming a tidy couplet. New York and other cities shut down then as they have shut down now. In the first week of July 1916 alone, 552 children in New York’s five boroughs were stricken with polio, and more than 1,000 the second week. Even before that feverish fortnight, the city health commissioner, Haven Emerson (the great-nephew of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson), made it his business to keep New Yorkers apart. Children under 16 were not permitted in crowded public places. Open-air movies, a new summer attraction, were forbidden. Fourth of July celebrations were canceled.

As COVID-19 might be, polio is a seasonal disease, though the poliovirus prefers the hot months, and SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is at least thought to prefer the cool ones. Now, as in 1916, the push for a vaccine is thus a cyclical one—a race against a viral time bomb set to go off by the calendar.

WHILE THE CLAMOR for a vaccine was loud after the polio epidemic of 1916, the wait was long. It was not until the summer of 1935 that there was hope, in the form of two great field trials: one by Dr. Maurice Brodie and Dr. William Park of the New York City department of health and one by Dr. John Kolmer of Temple University in Philadelphia.

In Kolmer’s case, the vaccine involved using a weakened poliovirus, one that wouldn’t cause symptoms but would still confer immunity. In the case of Park and Brodie, the technique involved a killed virus that would work more or less the same way.

Nine thousand children were injected with the Park-Brodie vaccine that summer, and 10,000 with Kolmer’s version. Both were disasters, in some cases causing the very polio they were intended to prevent, in others leading to infections and inflammations. Six children died of vaccine-caused polio. In November, Kolmer and Brodie were summoned to the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association for an open shaming delivered in twin reports, one of which ended with the damning conclusion that Kolmer might as well be guilty of murder.

“Gentlemen,” Kolmer said in response, “this is one time I wish the floor would open up and swallow me.”

It would be another 20 years, until 1955, before Dr. Jonas Salk would develop a successful killed-virus vaccine. That meant 39 years between the epidemic of 1916 and the moment when science would at last have its way with the disease.

Americans in lockdown now might seem almost spoiled to be chafing at being told to wait up to 18 months before a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 becomes available (though optimistic projections suggest that the breakthrough could come as early as January). But as science changes, expectations do too. We can now make vaccines faster than ever.

Still, some things remain the same. Americans separated by scourges more than a century apart share the same fear, the same worry, the same loneliness in lockdown and grief for lost loved ones. Diseases don’t change their character, and human beings don’t much either. But science presses ahead, and in our impatient 21st century, that’s something for which we should be deeply grateful.