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Age of Coronavirus: KC’s Role in Winning the War on Polio Campaign Against Polio Resonates Today

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Above image credit: Nurses at the University of Kansas Medical Center demonstrated the use of a tank respirator, or “iron lung,” for polio patients in 1950. (Courtesy | University of Kansas Medical Center Archives)
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6 minute read

On April 12, 1955, a capacity crowd squeezed into Municipal Stadium to watch the first game of major league baseball’s Kansas City Athletics.

The tougher ticket, however, was across town at the University of Kansas Medical Center. 

That’s where 900 doctors and assorted health care professionals crowded into a campus auditorium. Another 300 watched in an Elmwood Avenue movie theater, many blocks east of the ballpark.

They all shared in what now is considered a pivot point in the health of American children. Through a closed-circuit television hookup, carried to about 60 cities across the country, University of Pittsburgh physician and researcher Jonas Salk announced the polio vaccine he and a nationwide team had been testing had proven to be safe and effective.

Herbert Wenner, physician and pediatrics professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, helped lead local research that led to the Jonas Salk polio vaccine, announced in 1955.
Herbert Wenner, physician and pediatrics professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, helped lead local research that led to the Jonas Salk polio vaccine, announced in 1955.  (Courtesy | University of Kansas Medical Center Archives)

Herbert Wenner, then a research pediatrics professor at the medical center, elaborated after the late-afternoon transmission.

“The main hurdle has been leaped,” Wenner told those assembled in Battenfeld Auditorium, “and the polio vaccine now takes rank with the other life-saving vaccines against smallpox, diphtheria and whooping cough.”

When the day began, Americans may have remembered April 12 as the 10th anniversary of the death of the country’s most famous polio patient, former president Franklin Roosevelt.

But this news suggested what had crippled Roosevelt could be defeated.

“I remember being there,” Wenner, who died in 1998, said in an interview five years earlier.

“I don’t remember what I said. I didn’t get on a white horse and ride it.”

“The Polio Crusade,” a 2009 American Experience documentary, will be re-broadcast tonight a 8 p.m. on KCPT. The film details an earlier virus that, like COVID-19, prompted dread across America. Years of research by doctors and scientists conquered it, however, and Kansas City played a prominent part in that story.

Plague on Children

Kansas City area parents, however, may have considered Wenner sufficiently knight-like.

Polio, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that often struck children, most often in the warm summer months, long had been a source of ceaseless worry.

From 1930 through 1934, Kansas City health department officials had reported 59 polio cases and seven deaths. Between 1945 and 1949, the department counted 430 cases and 39 deaths.

In 1952, polio infected about 58,000 people across the country, killing more than 3,000 and paralyzing about 21,000 – the majority of them children.

A two-year-old girl who contracted polio in the early 1940s received this leg brace to wear.
A two-year-old girl who contracted polio in the early 1940s received this leg brace to wear. In 1984 Judy Glynn of Kansas City, who had fully recovered, donated the brace to the Kansas City Museum. (Courtesy | The Kansas City Museum/Union Station Collections)

In the years following World War II, polls suggested the only thing Americans feared more than polio was the threat of nuclear war.

Polio is a viral infectious disease of the nervous system whose sufferers often exhibit fever, headache and fatigue, and is sometimes followed by paralysis of muscles in one or more limbs, the throat, or chest. It can leave some unable to breathe without a ventilator or the long cylindrical device that came to be called an “iron lung.”

The disease especially was cruel in how it targeted children.

“This ruthless enemy, infantile paralysis, endangers a vital treasure – the health of our children,” President Harry Truman had said in a 1948 radio broadcast in which he urged donations to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization founded 10 years earlier by Roosevelt.

“Your generosity this year will decide the fate of thousands more.”

Beginning in 1949 the organization – today the March of Dimes Foundation – funded research at four universities: Kansas, Utah, Southern California and Pittsburgh.

In 1947 Margaret Truman helped a child drop dimes into milk bottles, launching the annual March of Dimes fundraiser in Washington, D.C.
In 1947 Margaret Truman helped a child drop dimes into milk bottles, launching the annual March of Dimes fundraiser in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy | The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum)

The work was not glamorous. According to “Break-Through: The Saga of Jonas Salk,” the task involved “the monotonous repetition of exactly the same technical procedures on virus after virus, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for three solid years.”

Wenner, in 1993, called the process exciting.

“But it was hard work and you would have to be enthusiastic to stay in it,” he said.

It was easy to feel urgency. 

In 1949 the mothers of about 40 local children afflicted with polio announced the initial meeting of the Jackson County Polio Mothers Club, to be held at the home of a stricken 5-year-old boy.

The boy’s parents lived at 4929 Tracy Ave. Readers of The Kansas City Star-Times by then had grown used to reading the names of the latest victims being admitted to area hospitals, whose officials reported their names, home addresses – and ages.

Polio’s spread was associated with warm weather. By that July Kansas City officials closed all swimming pools except those at Swope Park and at 17th Street and the Paseo – and those pools would be closed to all under 12.

The Kansas City Board of Education shut down five school pools, ending swimming classes for about 2,500 children. During the same month the director of the Missouri division of health reported that polio apparently struck without discrimination in rural or urban areas.

That same week the Kansas City Council of Camp Fire Girls announced the closing of its summer camp in Knob Noster, near Warrensburg.

Agony Spared

By then, at 39th Street and Rainbow Boulevard, Wenner’s team already had begun studying the response to polio strains in monkeys, laboratory animals susceptible to the virus. 

By mid-February about 100 rhesus monkeys from India occupied spaces on the fifth floor of the campus’s Hixon building.

A Kansas City Star reporter who visited described how, as the top floor was still being built, workers hauling concrete from the fourth to new fifth floor were followed by those carrying baskets of bananas, apples, oranges, cabbage and carrots.

The monkeys soon occupied 44 cages, 20 double cages and two larger ward rooms with open air pavilions. 

Ultimately the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis supplied 17,500 monkeys, about 4,000 of which came to Kansas City. At one point, officials at the Kansas City Zoo housed some of them.

From 1949 through 1952 Wenner and his team documented three main strains of the polio virus. A separate research team, at about the same time, determined that polio virus could be cultivated in test-tube cultures of tissue.

By 1954 the researchers had developed a vaccine. Field trials began that spring. Almost two million children in 44 states participated – among them about 5,000 children across Kansas City. No ill effects were reported with the local children.

Wenner served as adviser to 25 labs across the country.

That same year public health authorities reported 38,741 new polio cases, with the peak occurring in children ages 5 through 9. 

“The vaccine was off-stage, behind the curtain, ready to go,” Wenner said in 1993. “They just wanted to be sure there were no more than three types.”

Salk made his announcement the following April. 

The federal government quickly authorized six pharmaceutical companies to produce the vaccine and distribute it across the country.

The first vials of Salk vaccine arrived April 21, 1955 at what is now Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, flown in by Trans World Airlines from Indianapolis, home of Pitman-Moore Co., which had manufactured it. Airline freight handlers unloaded each 29-pound cardboard box before they were taken to refrigerated storage at Kansas City’s General Hospital. 

The following Monday, doctors and nurses administered the vaccine to some 4,000 students at public and parochial schools. The first child in Kansas City to receive the shot was Judith Anderson, a 7-year-old at Sanford B. Ladd School. 

Her parents, The Kansas City Star reported, lived at 3412 Bellefontaine Ave.

By the end of that week, about 26,000 children across Kansas City had received the shots.

David Eisenhower, 7-year-old grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower, received his at Fort Leavenworth. The president had lost his 3-year-old son Doud Dwight to scarlet fever in 1921.

“When I think of all the agony that these people will be spared, seeing their loved ones suffering in bed, I just say to you I have no words in which adequately to express the thanks of myself and all the people I know,” Eisenhower said that month when saluting Salk.

The rollout was not without complications. 

Shipments of tainted vaccine produced by a California lab left 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis while killing 10.

Also, what was supposed to be a series of three shots often was interrupted when supplies of vaccine were delayed. By the time more vaccine arrived that summer, some children who were no longer in school didn’t return for subsequent shots.

Still, during the following years, the incidence of polio in the U.S. fell from 18 cases per 100,000 people to fewer than two per 100,000. 

An oral vaccine introduced in the early 1960s by a separate researcher, Albert Sabin, also proved effective.

In 1965 Missouri health officials reported only one case; Kansas two.

‘You betcha…’

Through the years Wenner continued as one of Kansas City’s recognized experts on pediatric illness.

“It really wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in our house,” said his son Jim Wenner, one of the four children of Herbert and Ruth Wenner. “He didn’t sit around talking about the virus – he led a pretty regular life.

“But he led by example. Almost every Saturday we would go down to the lab with him. We got to see him working with his microscope, and we got to know his colleagues. He felt strongly that the contributions his colleagues were making were as important as his own.”

In 1969 Wenner moved to Children’s Mercy Hospital as director of its clinical virology laboratory before retiring years later. By 1993, Wenner said, polio had proven sufficiently rare that some younger American doctors had difficulty recognizing it.

“The fact is, the house officers of a hospital – the interns and residents – don’t think of polio anymore,” he said.

“It doesn’t come to mind until an older doctor comes in and tells them. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The disease is just not around much. And when it does reappear, it’s often mistaken for something else.”

By the 1990s, some parents had been pushing back on mandatory vaccinations for their children, polio among them.

That had frustrated Wenner.

“They had the right to do it,” he said in 1993.

“But polio is largely a preventable disease, and I don’t feel parents should deny their children the immunization.”

Had Wenner’s four children received the polio vaccine?

“You betcha,” Wenner said.

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City-based writer.

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