On sugar cubes and polio pioneers

It’s amazing the things you learn paddling around a public swimming pool.

There I was bobbing along Sunday afternoon, when my Mom leaned across a lane marker and casually mentioned that she and her sister had been among the first children to receive Albert Sabin’s live oral polio vaccine.

Our conversation developed from her initial reminiscence that public pools had all but emptied during the polio scare, and she and her neighborhood friends had been made to stay indoors from 12 to 3.

“We never knew why,” she said. “We all had to stay in the shade from 12 to three. So, I roller skated in the garage.”

Then one day, my mom’s dad, my Grandpa Fey, drove up in the middle of a weekday, an extremely unusual occurrence for the busy butcher and co-owner of the eponymous Fey’s Supermarket.

“He’d gotten some notice that a polio vaccine had become available, so he left work immediately and came and got Doris and me,” she said.

Both ladies recall being driven to their pediatrician Dr. Felter’s office. The most fascinating aspect of this story is that it occurred several years before the vaccine was made available to the public.

Dr. Sabin, working from his laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, tested his vaccine on his own family, then friends and neighbors. Eventually, he and his colleagues organized large-scale clinical trials of OPV on 180,000 Cincinnati school children, which effectively eradicated polio in Cincinnati.

For several years, Sabin’s vaccine became the preferred inoculation, because it was easy to give (with a sugar cube) and presumably lasted longer than Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine. Salk developed his vaccine from a “killed virus”, while Sabin used a live virus.

Both men have been credited for halting the spread of a terrifying illness. Also, thanks to Dr. Salk’s research, chlorine, which turned out to be one of the few chemicals that could inactivate the polio virus, became the standard disinfecting agent in public swimming pools.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us full circle back to my mom and I floating happily in a public swimming pool on a Sunday afternoon.

P.S. The Erb Park pool opens on June 8 and we can’t wait!

Grandma Fey and the girls
My grandmother Dorothy Fey with my mom, Peggy Jo and her sister Doris outside their house in Cincinnati. Though they were much younger than this picture, both girls recall their dad coming home in the middle of the day and driving them to Dr. Felter’s to receive the polio vaccine. 
Grandma and Grandpa Fey
I’m not sure what strings Grandpa Fey pulled, but he scored polio vaccines for his two beloved daughters long before they were available to the rest of the country.

 

 

 

 

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