American Masters "The Polio Crusade" on WXXI-TV

American Masters "The Polio Crusade" on WXXI-TV

Mon, 04/12/2010 - 9:00pm

Credit: March of Dimes

It was the largest public health experiment in American history — a crusade that eradicated polio, one of the 20th-century’s most dreaded diseases.

In the summer of 1950, fear gripped the residents of Wytheville, Virginia. Movie theaters shut down, baseball games were cancelled, and panicky parents kept their children indoors — anything to keep them safe from an invisible invader. Outsiders sped through town with their windows rolled up and bandanas covering their faces. The ones who couldn’t escape the perpetrator were left paralyzed, and some died in the wake of the devastating and contagious virus. Polio had struck in Wytheville. The town was in the midst of a full-blown epidemic. That year alone, more than 33,000 Americans fell victim — half of them under the age of 10.

American Masters "The Polio Crusade" airs Monday, April 12 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11). The program interweaves the personal accounts of polio survivors with the story of an ardent crusader who tirelessly fought on their behalf while scientists raced to eradicate the dreaded disease. Based in part on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky, The Polio Crusade, filmmaker Sarah Colt (Geronimo, RFK), features interviews with historians, scientists, polio survivors, and the only surviving scientist from the core research team that developed the Salk vaccine, Julius Youngner.

It was the largest public health experiment in American history — a crusade that eradicated polio, one of the 20th-century’s most dreaded diseases. The polio epidemic terrified Americans for decades, affecting thousands of children, leaving many crippled, paralyzed or condemned to life in an iron lung. But on April 26, 1954, hope emerged. At the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, six-year-old Randy Kerr stood at the head of a long line of children and waited patiently while a nurse gently rolled up his sleeve, then filled a syringe with a cherry-colored liquid containing the world’s first polio vaccine. Developed just a few years earlier by virologist Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine had not yet been widely tested on humans. No one was certain it was safe or whether it could provide effective protection against the disease. In the coming weeks, nearly two million school children in 44 states received the shots. The Salk vaccine trials were the dramatic culmination of years of research and a multi-million dollar investment, made up in large part by public donations. Based in part on David Oshinsky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Polio: An American Story , this film chronicles a decades-long crusade, fueled by the bold leadership of a single philanthropy and its innovative public relations campaign, and features a bitter battle between two scientists and the breakthrough of a now-forgotten woman researcher.

 

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