Elvis Presley Gets the Polio Vaccine on The Ed Sullivan Show, Persuading Millions to Get Vaccinated (1956)

No one liv­ing has expe­ri­enced a viral event the size and scope of COVID-19. Maybe the unprece­dent­ed nature of the pan­dem­ic explains some of the vac­cine resis­tance. Dis­eases of such vir­u­lence became rare in places with ready access to vac­cines, and thus, iron­i­cal­ly, over time, have come to seem less dan­ger­ous. But there are still many peo­ple in wealthy nations who remem­ber polio, an epi­dem­ic that dragged on through the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry before Jonas Salk per­fect­ed his vac­cine in the mid-fifties.

Polio’s dev­as­ta­tion has been summed up visu­al­ly in text­books and doc­u­men­taries by the ter­ri­fy­ing iron lung, an ear­ly ven­ti­la­tor. “At the height of the out­breaks in the late 1940s,” Meilan Sol­ly writes at Smith­son­ian, “polio par­a­lyzed an aver­age of more than 35,000 peo­ple each year,” par­tic­u­lar­ly affect­ing chil­dren, with 3,000 deaths in 1952 alone. “Spread viral­ly, it proved fatal for two out of ten vic­tims afflict­ed with paral­y­sis. Though mil­lions of par­ents rushed to inoc­u­late their chil­dren fol­low­ing the intro­duc­tion of Jonas Salk’s vac­cine in 1955, teenagers and young adults had proven more reluc­tant to get the shot.”

At the time, there were no vio­lent, orga­nized protests against the vac­cine, nor was resis­tance framed as a patri­ot­ic act of polit­i­cal loy­al­ty. But “cost, apa­thy and igno­rance became seri­ous set­backs to the erad­i­ca­tion effort,” says his­to­ri­an Stephen Mawd­s­ley. And, then as now, irre­spon­si­ble media per­son­al­i­ties with large plat­forms and lit­tle knowl­edge could do a lot of harm to the public’s con­fi­dence in life-sav­ing pub­lic health mea­sures, as when influ­en­tial gos­sip colum­nist Wal­ter Winchell wrote that the vac­cine “may be a killer,” dis­cour­ag­ing count­less read­ers from get­ting a shot.

When Elvis Pres­ley made his first appear­ance on Ed Sul­li­van’s show in 1956, “immu­niza­tion lev­els among Amer­i­can teens were at an abysmal 0.6 per­cent,” note Hal Her­sh­field and Ilana Brody at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can. To counter impres­sions that the polio vac­cine was dan­ger­ous, pub­lic health offi­cials did not sole­ly rely on get­ting more and bet­ter infor­ma­tion to the pub­lic; they also took seri­ous­ly what Her­sh­field and Brody call the “cru­cial ingre­di­ents inher­ent to many of the most effec­tive behav­ioral change cam­paigns: social influ­ence, social norms and vivid exam­ples.” Sat­is­fy­ing all three, Elvis stepped up and agreed to get vac­ci­nat­ed “in front of mil­lions” back­stage before his sec­ond appear­ance on the Sul­li­van show.

Elvis could not have been more famous, and the cam­paign was a suc­cess for its tar­get audi­ence, estab­lish­ing a new social norm through influ­ence and exam­ple: “Vac­ci­na­tion rates among Amer­i­can youth sky­rock­et­ed to 80 per­cent after just six months.” Despite the threat he sup­pos­ed­ly posed to the estab­lish­ment, Elvis him­self was ready to serve the pub­lic. “I cer­tain­ly nev­er wan­na do any­thing,” he said, “that would be a wrong influ­ence.” See in the short video at the top how Amer­i­can pub­lic health offi­cials stopped mil­lions of pre­ventable deaths and dis­abil­i­ties by admit­ting a fact pro­pa­gan­dists and adver­tis­ers nev­er shy from — humans, on the whole, are eas­i­ly per­suad­ed by celebri­ties. Some­times they can even be per­suad­ed for the good.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Yo-Yo Ma Plays an Impromp­tu Per­for­mance in Vac­cine Clin­ic After Receiv­ing 2nd Dose

Dying in the Name of Vac­cine Free­dom

How Do Vac­cines (Includ­ing the COVID-19 Vac­cines) Work?: Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions

How Vac­cines Improved Our World In One Graph­ic

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.