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The Polio Crusade | Primary Source

Teacher's Resource

Answer the following questions as you view the film.

  1. What is another name for infantile paralysis?
  2. In what season did polio tend to strike?
  3. What rising young politician was stricken by polio in 1921?
  4. What was the goal of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation?
  5. Who was chosen to head the foundation? Why did he take the job?
  6. Why did polio become a bigger rather than a smaller problem after the adoption of modern sanitation systems?
  7. How was polio spread?
  8. What was the March of Dimes?
  9. How did the March of Dimes spread its message among movie audiences?
  10. Why did many towns use pesticides against polio? Was this effective?
  11. What researcher committed to developing a polio vaccine did O’Connor meet on a ship in 1951?
  12. How was this researcher’s planned vaccine different from other vaccines?
  13. What researcher was the main opponent of this approach?
  14. From O’Connor’s point of view, what was the main advantage of Salk’s approach?
  15. What was the iron lung?
  16. In what year was a major field test conducted of Salk’s vaccine? What were the results?
  17. Why did the surgeon general suddenly halt the vaccine program?
  18. What happened to the number of polio cases in the years after vaccines were widely distributed?
  19. When was Sabin’s vaccine ready? What advantages did it have over Salk’s?
  20. In what year was polio declared eradicated in the United States?

Classroom Activities

Polio in Your Community

To learn how polio affected your community in the years before an effective vaccine was developed.

View the Introduction to the film, which describes how polio ravaged the small town of Wytheville, VA. As a class, prepare an oral history of the impact of polio on people in your community. Begin by brainstorming a list of questions concerning people’s experiences with polio. For example, Did you or someone you knew suffer from polio? How did it affect him or her, as well as other family members? Do you remember being afraid that you would get polio? 
Then have each member of the class find two people who had a personal experience with polio, either directly or through a family member or friend, and ask them the questions developed above. Write down their complete answers. After the interviews, edit the answers as needed to make them read smoothly (but do not change their meaning).

Circulate these answers among the members of the class and select the ones you find most interesting. Then assemble them into a booklet, organizing them either chronologically or by theme. (For example, you might want to group together all passages dealing with people’s fear of polio, or the types of treatments polio sufferers received, or people’s reactions to the development of a vaccine.)

Distribute a copy of the oral history to each person interviewed for the project and ask for their reactions. Do they think it provides a sense of what life was like before polio was conquered? You might also ask your school librarian to make it available in the library for other interested students.

For a Good Cause

To learn about the many charities operating in your community and in the United States as a whole.

View the film chapter The March of Dimes. As a class, see how many examples you can find of fundraising activities by charities, either in your community or across the country. These activities could include walkathons and telethons, car washes, bake sales, and sales of items like t-shirts. Make a list on the board of the different charities running these fundraisers. Then have students research these charities to find out their mission and the kinds of activities they perform in your area and report this information back to the class.

When you are done, discuss the following questions as a class:

  • Which of these organizations were you already familiar with? Which had you not heard of before doing this activity?
  • How would you describe the missions of most of the charities – for example, do most of them focus on helping children, or improving medical care, or aiding the poor?
  • Do you think charities should have to raise money themselves, or should they be supported by taxpayer dollars from the government? For example, would you favor the creation of a special 1 percent sales tax to fund various charities? What would be the arguments for and against such a proposal?

The First “Disabled” President

To examine how polio affects Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy as President.

View the film chapter “The March of Dimes.” When a national memorial was dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, DC, in 1997, controversy arose over whether it should include a statue of FDRin a wheelchair. Hold a mock hearing to address this controversy.

For background, have students read the excerpts below from FDR, one of the films in American Experience’s “The Presidents” series.

Alistair Cooke: I don’t believe five Americans in a hundred knew he was paralyzed. I think if it had been absolutely common knowledge, it would have been very difficult to elect him.

Hugh Gallagher, Biographer: The country just simply didn’t perceive Roosevelt as being handicapped, and they would look and they just would not see what they were seeing. People wanted him to be president, he wanted to be president. There was this little matter of being crippled in the way. . . .

He’s appearing in public. It’s politically important that he not look helpless. He’s got to plan how will he enter a room? How will he move across to the chair? Who will help him sit down? How will he do it? Who will take the cane? How – do they know? Is the chair stable?

Milton Lipson, Secret Service: We became experts at designing ramps, and there would be ramps that would be erected either on a permanent or temporary basis to allow for the wheelchair. Of course, there were times when he would be helped by a couple of agents in a fireman’s carry, and all he would do was drape his arms around us and we’d form a fireman’s carry and carry him.

Hugh Gallagher: For large crowds, they would build a ramp for the car, so the car would come into the stadiums, drive up on the ramp and then the President, still seated, would address the public. And they had the braces painted black, even though they were shiny steel. He wore black shoes, black socks, black trousers— black trousers cut long so that the braces all but disappeared if you weren’t looking closely.

Chalmers Roberts, Reporter: Most of the pictures you see of him, he’s either standing up and if you look carefully he’s holding onto somebody’s arm or he’s setting in a chair. There are very few pictures of him in a wheelchair. This was not exactly a conspiracy, but it was a conspiracy of consent between photographers and the White House, something that could never exist today.

Hugh Gallagher: At Hyde Park, they have something like more than 40,000 still photos of Franklin Roosevelt and of those 40,000, there are only two of him in a wheelchair, and they were family photos. And there was never a cartoon of him being handicapped or being in a wheelchair or otherwise. He was always running and jumping or in a boxing ring, hitting – knocking a Republican out of the ring or something like that. People were more polite back then. . . .

Now, assign some students to represent the committee that will decide how to resolve the issue, and assign other students to act as “concerned citizens” to give testimony to the committee. The concerned citizens could include a member of Roosevelt’s family, a person who suffered from polio, a historian who has written a biography of FDR, an activist who works on behalf of rights for disabled persons, and a reporter who covered FDR as President, among others.

The concerned citizens should prepare brief statements for the committee on whether they think the FDR memorial should show Roosevelt in a wheelchair and why (or why not). After hearing the testimony, the committee should meet and make its decision.

Have students find out how the controversy over the FDR memorial was ultimately resolved. Is this the same solution your “committee” chose? Do you think that Americans should take into account FDR’s disability in judging his accomplishments as President? Why or why not?

The Polio Panic of 1952

To learn how Americans in 1952 reacted to the latest polio outbreak and the prospect of a vaccine.

View the film chapter “Iron Lung.” In 1952, even as Jonas Salk was testing what he hoped would be an effective vaccine against polio, the United States suffered the largest polio attack in its history. Working with a partner, find a primary source from 1952 that describes Americans’ reaction to the latest polio outbreak and/or the prospect of a vaccine. Examples of primary sources include an article on polio from a local newspaper or weekly news magazine, a first-person account from someone who was stricken by polio that year or knew someone who was, or a photograph or poster from that year related to polio.

Assemble these primary sources into a bulletin-board display entitled “The Polio Panic of 1952.”

Using the information from the display, list the kinds of emotions Americans were feeling in 1952 as a result of the polio threat. Have any recent events had a similar impact on Americans?

Protecting the Nation’s Schoolchildren

To learn basic facts about the diseases against which children must be vaccinated in order to attend school.

View the film chapter “Eradication.” Polio isn’t the only disease against which children must be vaccinated. Ask your school nurse to provide the class with a list of the vaccinations the school requires of all students, and list these vaccinations on the board. Then divide the class into groups and have each group research one of these items — how that particular disease affects the body, how the vaccination prevents the disease, and how (and how often) the vaccination is provided. Have groups report their findings to the class.

After groups have made their reports, discuss these questions as a class:

  • Which of these vaccinations were you already familiar with? Which were new to you?
  • What are the benefits of requiring certain vaccinations of all entering students?
  • What might be some drawbacks of requiring certain vaccinations?

Hints for Completing Classroom Activities

1. Before conducting any interviews, students should explain the oral history project to their potential subjects and obtain each subject’s permission to include his or her answers in the final product. For examples of first-person accounts of polio, students might want to read these stories at the March of Dimes’ website or these accounts from the Iowa Polio Stories Oral History Project.

2. Students should note that following the victory over polio, the March of Dimes broadened its mission to improving the health of babies, and it remains one of the nation’s most prominent charities. In discussing whether charities should receive government support, students should consider not only the impact on taxpayers, but also issues such as which charities government should support and whether government support might affect charities’ independence.

3. Students may want to check with your local library to see what newspapers, periodicals, or other documents from 1952 it may have available. Some periodicals’ archives can also be searched online. 

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