Rochester’s History of Fighting Viral Disease

Parkedale’s Role in Defeating Polio

As we wait for medical science to develop vaccines and treatments to fight COVID-19, it is interesting to turn back the pages of history to the story of another disease that was vanquished by vaccine—and to remember Rochester’s connection to the historic achievement.

Barns and water tower from the 1950s

These horse barns at Parkedale later housed monkeys that were used to produce the Salk vaccine (Rochester Hills Public Library)

Poliomyelitis (commonly called polio) is a contagious viral disease with a wide range of symptoms, including paralysis in some cases. The disease swept over the United States in several epidemic waves during the first half of the twentieth century. Among patients who developed muscle weakness and paralysis, the mortality rate from polio was three to five percent in children and between fifteen and thirty percent in adults. Because most of the victims of the disease were children, it struck fear in the hearts of parents everywhere. The polio “season” generally ran through the summer months, prompting many parents to restrict the outdoor activities of their children.

As polio spiked in the United States after World War II, researchers worked furiously on a vaccine, and the March of Dimes led a public awareness and funding campaign. In 1949, the March of Dimes backed the work of Dr. Jonas Salk, who was at the time director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Salk had previously learned the methodology of vaccine development while a research fellow at the University of Michigan. There he had worked with his friend and mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., who was the head of the epidemiology department at U-M’s School of Public Health.

A man in a lab coat holds two gallon-size glass bottles

Dr. Jonas Salk (Wikimedia Commons)

Because of recent scientific breakthroughs in polio research, Salk realized that the tools now existed to produce a vaccine. He developed an inactivated—or “killed”—vaccine for polio, which he believed to be safer than the live virus vaccines advocated by the prevailing medical wisdom of the time. In 1953 and early 1954, he conducted the first human safety trials of his polio vaccine on a group of approximately 5,300 people, including among them himself, his wife, and his three young sons. When the test results revealed that the participants had not experienced any serious side effects and that their blood now contained antibodies against the disease, it was time for a massive national trial to prove the vaccine.

In the spring of 1954, a nationwide field trial was rolled out that involved more than 600,000 children in first through third grades. Children who participated in the field trials were known as Polio Pioneers. They received a series of three injections; some children received the actual vaccine, while others received only a harmless placebo of sterile water. A few pharmaceutical companies were selected to produce the vaccine for the field trial according to Dr. Salk’s strict specifications. Among them was Parke, Davis & Company, of Detroit.

And that’s where Rochester entered the story. To manufacture the Salk vaccine, Parke-Davis built a brand-new, two-million-dollar facility at its Parkedale Biological Farm east of Rochester. There it produced a large percentage of the trial doses that were administered to schoolchildren.

Students right here in Rochester rolled up their sleeves along with their counterparts across the country. Dr. Edgar Geist administered the first inoculations to six-year-olds at Brooklands Elementary School, and after the Brooklands children showed no ill effects, the program expanded to the remaining schools. In all, 430 Rochester children participated in the Polio Pioneers program.

The University of Michigan was asked to conduct an independent review and evaluation of the trial vaccine data, and on April 12, 1955, a press conference was called in Ann Arbor to announce the results. The Salk vaccine had been proven safe and overwhelmingly effective in preventing polio infections, and the news was greeted with great joy. Harper’s Magazine reported that in Syracuse, New York, the announcement of the efficacy of the Salk vaccine was met with ringing church bells, sounding of sirens, and turning of all traffic lights red for one minute. That same afternoon in Washington, D.C., the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare signed the licenses for the first five pharmaceutical companies to produce the Salk polio vaccine for commercial distribution. Since Parke-Davis was one of those companies and had been producing the vaccine for the trials, it shipped the very first commercial batch of polio vaccine in the United States only four hours after the authorization was signed.

Production of polio vaccine at Parkedale was ramped up immediately. Because the vaccine was cultivated in kidney tissue harvested from rhesus monkeys, chartered airplanes brought 1,600 monkeys from India, Singapore, and the Philippines to Detroit’s Metro airport every three weeks.

The monkeys were housed in the cupola-topped barns that had previously been the home of horses that had produced Parke-Davis’s diphtheria vaccine and tetanus antitoxin.

Salk’s vaccine was proven to be between 80 and 90 percent effective versus the placebo in preventing polio. Six years after the vaccine went into general distribution, new polio infections had dropped by 96 percent. Refinements of the original vaccine were made over time, and it has been successful in nearly eliminating a childhood scourge from the planet. The Americas were declared polio-free in 1994.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Larsen:
    Thank you for your excellent articles. I appreciate your hard work.

  2. You unearth and write such interesting articles!

    • Deborah J. Larsen says:

      I’m glad you enjoy them! It’s a good think that there is no shortage of interesting stories to tell in our local history.

  3. Nice story Debbie! Rochester Rotary takes a lot of pride in the local polio vaccine story because of the Polio Plus Campaign with Rotary International to wipe out polio.

  4. Barbara Williams says:

    Excellent article …I had an uncle and. dear friend who had Polio,
    One recovered fully , one with a limb defect.

  5. Debbie,
    Regarding your polio article: Another great job.
    Dr. Edgar Geist (or Jack to his friends) was Rochester Rotary’ s organizer and first president in 1954. Later, he was instrumental in Rotary International’s Polio 2005 campaign to end polio in that year. That was not achieved, but it is coming ever closer every day with only 2 countries worldwide where new cases are being reported.

  6. Margie Kelly says:

    I had a friend in middle school who had polio. She had several painful surgeries on her leg. Your article was very interesting. Thank you for providing interesting history.

  7. Andrea Youness says:

    Thank you for this article Deborah! As always, you teach me much! <3

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