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Column: People didn’t hesitate to get the polio vaccine
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The first polio epidemic was recorded in 1897, but it would be almost a century later before the crippling disease would be eliminated from the Western Hemisphere. 

There were numerous outbreaks in the United States, and parents learned soon that children were especially vulnerable during warm-season activities. The early 1900s saw serious epidemics in the Northeast.

In September 1941, Hall County reported just five cases of polio, but Gainesville and county commissioners took bold action to prevent the spread. They banned children under age 16 from all public gathering places. Both city and county school boards postponed the opening of schools that fall. Churches discontinued youth Sunday School classes indefinitely.

The “quarantine,” as local officials termed their action, stayed in effect until the local health department agreed it could end. Those wanting to have some sort of assembly would have to get health officials’ permission.

In April 1955 Hall County children finally could be inoculated against polio. In the months leading up to then, the nation and the world’s eyes were on Dr. Jonas Salk, a 40-year-old scientist who developed the vaccine that prevented polio.

North Georgians at that time eagerly awaited approval and arrival of the shots, intended at first for first and second grade school students. When word of the shots’ shipment began to reach Georgia, the Atlanta Constitution headline read, “Calls for Vaccine Swamp Health Centers.”

Indeed, headlines in the local papers showed how anxious parents were to get their children vaccinated. Dr. Martin Smith, a Gainesville pediatrician, already had 300 children registered by their parents before doctors’ offices even had the vaccine.

The first shots given in Hall County were April 18, 1955. The health department held clinics but even went into the schools to vaccinate children. First and second graders would be required a series of three shots over a few weeks.

If there was resistance to the vaccine, it wasn’t evident in news reports of the day. Seventy-five percent of parents signed up their children in the first days of the mass vaccinations. 

More than 1,900 eligible Hall County students rolled up their sleeves as soon as the vaccine became available. Most of the 2,462 students eventually got vaccinated.

Mary Tibbetts was chair of a Hall County Polio Committee, which helped inform and encourage parents to register their children. Dr. Homer Lancaster was Hall County health commissioner at the time.

Polio was declared the most feared disease of the 20th Century. Before the vaccine became available, there were stories and pictures of children in “iron lungs,” in wheelchairs and on crutches. President Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease as an adult in 1921 and continued to use a wheelchair until his death. His experience, particularly his trips for therapy at Warm Springs, inspired thousands who suffered from polio. 

People were united in the fight against polio. Before Salk developed the vaccine, fundraising was common in communities across North Georgia. In 1941, Hall County held dances and parties to raise money. It had a quota of $1,300, which it easily surpassed. President Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes to fight polio, and the organization today promotes healthy pregnancies.

Mrs. Claude Carter led a Hall County committee coordinating events, which included bridge and rook parties at the Dixie-Hunt Hotel and a basketball game between Gainesville High School and Dahlonega. A birthday ball and a square dance to the music of New Holland’s string band were other activities.

A.E. Willis of Chicopee, R.O. Pilgrim of New Holland and James Clark at Gainesville Mill led fund-raisers in their communities.

Politics apparently wasn’t injected into the vaccination campaigns. Had there been any controversy, it would have been how fast and how many shots communities were able to get. It appeared people were united in doing something to combat a disease and seeing that vaccinations were accepted as necessary to stop its spread.

Because of widespread mass vaccinations, polio was eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994. Salk later had developed an oral vaccine available to anybody who wanted to take it. The only countries today with a high incidence of the disease are Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Miss Gainesville

As the first polio vaccines were administered in Hall County, a Miss Gainesville beauty contest was being conducted at what was then called the Civic Building. Ironically, a victim of polio, Vicki Vickers, a Brenau College student, won the title.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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