Baby boomers remember both the fear of poliomyelitis—the viral infection that attacks the nervous system, leaving some who contract it paralyzed, or dead—and the relief that they felt when the rollout of Jonas Salk’s vaccine put an end to repeated midcentury summer outbreaks of the disease. In 1954, the summer before this rollout, 1.8 million kids participated in a widely publicized trial of the new vaccine. From the vantage point of 2020, when vaccine skepticism floats right below the surface of public debate, the widespread embrace of the new vaccine feels surprising. Was the March of Dimes–financed rollout of Salk’s miracle jab, conducted in a hurry as polio threatened to strike again in the summer of 1955, really as smooth as history makes it seem?
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