Participants’ stories of 1964 polio preventive show parallels to COVID-19
By Joyce Reingold
Walter and Jean Dutch left New York in 1946 to settle in Briny Breezes with their two young children, Karen and Wayne. Karen Dutch Steinke was just 6 months old then, but she would later learn that on the trip south, her parents bypassed an area of the country where they had heard poliomyelitis was present.
In the 1940s, polio outbreaks were becoming more frequent, and millions of parents like the Dutches became fierce sentinels protecting vulnerable children from the highly contagious virus that too often resulted in muscle weakness, paralysis and sometimes death. In summer, when cases of the virus spiked, parents kept children indoors. Families social-distanced, self-isolated and quarantined.
The virus is transmitted through contact with fecal matter or via droplets from coughs or sneezes. But then, there were many theories — perhaps flies, car exhaust or even cats were to blame. In the absence of scientific evidence, fear festered.
“Few diseases frightened parents more in the early part of the 20th century than did polio,” the College of Physicians of Philadelphia says. In 1952, said to be the polio epidemic’s most virulent year in America, there were almost 58,000 reported cases; 3,000 of those stricken died. By then, Dr. Jonas Salk was working on an injectable, “killed virus” vaccine. Three years later, on April 12, 1955, the U.S. government gave him the green light. In some cities, church bells rang to celebrate the announcement.
The parallels to today’s COVID-19 pandemic are striking: death and disability, fear and disruption — and hope. COVID vaccines developed at “warp speed” are making their way into eager communities, most of which are also eager for speedier, easier and more equitable distribution. President Joe Biden proposes deploying mobile vaccination units, expanding distribution points to include stadiums and other large venues, and adding more drive-thru options, so people can get vaccinated in their cars.
It’s a convenience modeled here 57 years ago, when the Delray Beach Drive-In served as one of 52 locations for Palm Beach County’s mass polio vaccination effort. The Palm Beach County Medical Society’s goal was to immunize every person in the county — all 280,000 of them — starting on Jan. 19, 1964.
That was the first of three Sabin Oral Sundays, on which residents could receive doses of Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine. It was developed using a live but weakened form of the virus and could be delivered in a sugar cube or small swallow of fruit-flavored syrup. First licensed for use in 1960, it was a successor to Salk’s groundbreaking vaccine.
The Palm Beach County Medical Society and the Jaycees organized the distribution effort, choosing sites from the coast to Canal Point, and from Jupiter to Boca Raton. Nurses, doctors, pharmacists and hundreds of volunteers staffed these locations on Jan. 19 and the remaining Sabin Oral Sundays, Feb. 23 and April 5.
Adults and children 6 weeks and older were eligible to receive vaccines to prevent the three types of the polio virus, one dose for each visit. Each dose cost a quarter, the price of five first-class postage stamps then, but no people were turned away if they couldn’t afford to pay.
The doctor behind drive-in
The Jaycees and medical society selected mostly schools as dosing stations, but the Delray Drive-In theater on Federal Highway just north of where Sande’s Restaurant stands today was a notable and novel exception.
By the end of Jan. 19, 161,400 county residents had taken their medicine. Delray Beach’s tally was 12,100 people, 7,800 of whom had received it at the drive-in, before the evening’s first film, Secret Passions, would start to flicker across the screen.
Local historian Tom Warnke remembers getting the vaccine at the Delray Drive-In.
“In 1962, we lived on Northeast 20th Street in Delray Beach, next to Plumosa Elementary School,” Warnke said. “The polio vaccine was being given at the Delray Drive-In theater, so it was the closest location for us. We drove there as a family to get the vaccine. I believe all six of us Warnke kids got it — Bill, Tom, Terry, Randy, Wendy and Ann. It was an oral vaccine so we received it in a small plastic cup. None of us were very concerned, since we didn’t know anyone who had polio, but we were happy not to get a needle in the arm like we did with the chickenpox or measles vaccine.”
The idea of using the drive-in to distribute the vaccine originated with Dr. Robert “Bob” E. Raborn, a cardiologist and public health physician. He was an innovator whom a friend remembered in his 1999 obituary in The Palm Beach Post as “part of everything that came along.”
Raborn and his wife, Lenore, a medical social worker who died in November 2020, were among the founders of Bethesda Hospital in the 1950s and were deeply woven into the fabric of Boynton Beach civic life. The hospital took root in the 1950s on a mango grove, land given by Mrs. Raborn’s father, Fred Benson.
“Twelve acres of mangoes and two houses,” remembers the Raborns’ daughter, Robin, who lives in Hillsborough, California. “Where the high-rise parking lot is — that’s where we lived.”
“Dad had a way of making things fun and getting them done,” says son Dr. Richard Raborn, of Blairsville, Georgia. “What I remember is, when he came up with the idea of using drive-in movie theaters to distribute the oral polio vaccine, that it was a new idea that nobody else had come up with. The pharmacist would be in the little food distribution building, and they would put the drops of oral vaccine on sugar cubes.”
Robin and Richard, both now in their 60s, remember racing trays of squat-bottomed cups of sugar cubes to waiting drivers and passengers.
“We would just run them out to the window of the car,” Richard says, “and then they would just grab the number of Dixie cups that they needed for everybody in the car. And everybody had their sugar cube and moved on.”
The Post detailed this efficiency the next day: “Dr. Raborn said that 7,800 people were handled there on a speedy mass production basis. Once inside the theater, cars were divided into 10 lanes, one down each aisle. A Jaycee volunteer on the left of the car registered its occupants as a volunteer on the right side of the car gave out the doses. More than 3,000 were given the vaccine there in the first hour and Dr. Raborn said that 30,000 dosages could have been given out there, so efficient was the system. Each car was processed in a matter of 30 seconds.”
Raborn told the Fort Lauderdale News he was “delighted” by this “successful public health program at a drive-in theater.”
An ‘ingenious’ idea
Janet DeVries Naughton, who chronicled Palm Beach County’s vaccine campaign in an article on the Boynton Beach Historical Society website, called Raborn’s idea “ingenious.”
“How else to give mass immunity in such a short period of time? Today they could use the South Florida Fairgrounds, the Boynton Beach Mall, the FAU parking lot, etc.,” says Naughton, a historian, author and Palm Beach State College librarian and history professor.
Dr. Nicholas S. Petkas, co-chair of the county effort, deemed it “fairly successful” in an interview with the News. Bill Plum, then chairman of the Boynton Beach Jaycees, told the newspaper his city had “a fine showing,” with 8,000 doses distributed.
Although the campaign’s goal remained elusive throughout the Sabin Oral Sundays — 161,285 total doses in February and 149,308 in April — the Delray Drive-In operation continued to be popular and effective. “Delray Leads Dosing,” read a headline in the News after the Feb. 23 SOS.
“The city’s drive-in Sabin vaccine dosing center was apparently a contributing factor in the success of the program here,” the story read. “Delray Beach led the county percentage-wise in doses. Nearly 12,000 persons showed … most of these stopping at the center located in the drive-in theater.”
With Feb. 23 numbers lower in Boynton Beach than on the first SOS, Plum posited that many residents may have drifted to Delray for the drive-thru convenience. In Boca Raton, 4,534 doses were termed a “disappointing” result, according to the News article.
Patricia Fiorillo, assistant curator for the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum, said Boca and the surrounding areas were still “pretty rural” well into the 1950s, and the town didn’t get its own hospital until the mid- to late 1960s. “Most people traveled to Delray Beach or Fort Lauderdale for medical care,” she says.
The drive-in registered its highest dosing numbers on April 5, distributing the final dose of vaccine to 8,150 people. According to the News, Boynton’s Plum motored down to Delray to observe the operation, which he termed “fantastic.” In 90 minutes, he said, the dosing station served approximately 4,000 people.
After the final SOS tally, Petkas told the Post he was disappointed that less than 60% of the county’s population had turned up for the final dose. But, the county Health Department still had 8,000 doses available that needed to be used within a week, since they’d already been thawed and would spoil.
“Isn’t it ironic that just a few years ago we were crying for a polio vaccine and now we are throwing it away because the people don’t want it?” Petkas told the Post. “They are flying vaccine to Nassau on an emergency basis, but those who can get it here just can’t seem to be bothered.”
Some people shunned the doses out of fear or suspicion. During the first Sabin Oral Sunday, police arrested a West Palm Beach man outside a dosing station for distributing anti-vaccine leaflets without a required permit.
A miracle for some
But for parents who fearfully kept their children indoors; for people who’d been paralyzed, required leg braces, or relied on iron lungs to breathe; and for those who’d lost loved ones to polio, the vaccines were a miracle.
“When my mother was young, her father, at 27, had polio from the neck down. Iron lungs had not been invented. My Grandpa Bill lived to 80 and walked with a cane all the days I knew and loved him,” says Karen Dutch Steinke, who now lives in Roseland, Florida.
She was in the third grade at Boynton Beach Elementary in 1954-55 when she became a Polio Pioneer. This meant she was one of the more than 1.3 million U.S. children who participated in a Salk vaccine clinical trial in which neither the children, parents nor health officials knew who had received the vaccine or a placebo, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
A Polio Pioneer card and metal pin were her rewards for taking part, yet millions owe their escape from polio to Steinke and all the other children whose participation helped bring the Salk vaccine to the marketplace.
Optimism for COVID vaccine
Today, Palm Beach County has almost 1.5 million year-round residents, an untold number of whom are anxiously awaiting their chances for a COVID-19 vaccine. In news stories, Facebook posts, telephone calls, texts and socially distanced conversations, people are talking: Who can get it? How’d you get it? Where can I get it? Pfizer or Moderna? How is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine coming along?
Dr. Michael Dennis, founding chair of the advisory board for the Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University, is optimistic about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and thinks with a ramped-up vaccination effort, it’s possible “we’ll be back to a relatively normal social environment again” by fall. But, he said, measures such as mask-wearing and hand-washing will continue to be important.
“Politics has really had more of a voice in how people should handle themselves than has the CDC or other medical influences, which is really disappointing because the medical advice is something that’s solid,” Dennis says.
Robin Raborn says that is one of the lessons she learned from her father: “Throughout my life, my father always stressed that disease was not political, and it should be treated as public health. So, I know that he would be very upset with the political nature of how this virus has been treated, both in the prevention and distribution of all the vaccine and everything. It shouldn’t be political. It should be all about health and prevention.”
The United States has been “polio-free” since 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, children get four doses of polio vaccine at prescribed intervals. Since 2000, the U.S. has used only inactivated polio, given as a shot in the leg or arm. Gone are the sugar cubes and sweet elixirs.
But in December 2020, Jeffrey Sherman, a writer, producer and director living in Los Angeles, revealed in a tweet that those old vaccines live on in a familiar song written by his father, the late Robert B. Sherman, and his uncle Richard Sherman:
“When I was a kid we got the polio vaccine. My dad, working on Mary Poppins, asked how my day was. I told him about the vaccine. ‘Didn’t it hurt?’ I said they put it on a sugar cube and you ate it. He called my uncle Dick and the next day they wrote A Spoonful of Sugar.”
He continues: “My little corner of film music history. When the COVID vaccine arrives, get it. We’re codependent in this small world. Trust science and doctors. We will beat this enemy if we listen to those who know. Be safe. Wear a mask. Be considerate to your fellow man.”