The Anti-Vaxxer Who Waged War Against Jonas Salk & His Polio Vaccine: When History Keeps Repeating

Almost imme­di­ate­ly after Scot­tish doc­tor Edward Jen­ner learned how to inoc­u­late humans against small­pox in 1796, mass move­ments sprang up in Eng­land and the U.S. to oppose the mea­sure. The rejec­tion of inoc­u­la­tion and vac­ci­na­tion gen­er­al­ly made its stand on “polit­i­cal grounds,” says Yale his­to­ri­an Frank Snow­den. For over two hun­dred years, peo­ple have “wide­ly con­sid­ered [vac­cines to be] anoth­er form of tyran­ny.” In the 19th cen­tu­ry, fears of gov­ern­ment con­trol mutat­ed into pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries claim­ing the small­pox vac­cine might cause, for exam­ple, the growth of hooves and horns or the birth of human/cow hybrid babies.

The push­back against the small­pox vac­cine, writes Slate’s Nick Kep­pler, occurred dur­ing a time “when argu­ments about bod­i­ly integri­ty and reli­gious objec­tion car­ried as much weight as sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence.” But vac­cine sci­ence pro­gressed nonethe­less, and sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tions – very much in league with gov­ern­ment by the mid-20th cen­tu­ry – shared their largesse in the form of med­ical break­throughs and con­sumer con­ve­niences. “The post­war era was a very trust-in-sci­ence-era,” says researcher sci­en­tist Jonathan M. Berman, author of Anti-Vaxxers: How to Chal­lenge a Mis­in­formed Move­ment. “The pub­lic not just accept­ed, but cheered, the head­line-mak­ing work of guys in white lab coats,” Kep­pler remarks.

Not every­one was cheer­ing for Jonas Salk, the March of Dimes, and the polio vac­cine, how­ev­er. While celebri­ties like Elvis Pres­ley legit­imized the vac­cine in the eyes of a pre­vi­ous­ly skep­ti­cal pub­lic, a few fer­vent anti-vaxxers rose to promi­nence, some using the same com­bi­na­tion of fear mon­ger­ing, pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic spec­u­la­tion, and con­spir­a­to­r­i­al think­ing com­mon to the small­pox era – and com­mon, once again, in the time of COVID-19.

One of these fig­ures, Flori­da busi­ness­man Duon Miller, found­ed a cos­met­ics com­pa­ny, then invest­ed his own mon­ey and that of oth­ers into an orga­ni­za­tion called Polio Pre­ven­tion Inc., a one-man oper­a­tion that pur­port­ed to fight polio with infor­ma­tion about nutri­tion. Miller’s orga­ni­za­tion actu­al­ly served to under­mine the vac­cine with a host of out­ra­geous, log­i­cal­ly fal­la­cious claims about the caus­es of polio and the dan­gers of vac­ci­na­tion. As Kep­pler notes:

Like today’s COVID skep­tics, Miller cher­ry-picked physi­cians who were skep­ti­cal of polio as a virus and mis­rep­re­sent­ed facts. One mail­er was a rapid fire of out-of-con­text infor­ma­tion: Salk “isn’t entire­ly sat­is­fied with the vac­cine.” Some chil­dren still got polio after being vac­ci­nat­ed. And just as the “real” num­ber of COVID-19 deaths pales in com­par­i­son to vac­cine deaths in some dark cor­ners of the inter­net, so it was with polio in Miller’s world: “Polio ‘CRIPPLES’ and Polio ‘DEATHS’ are mere­ly ‘Sta­tis­tics’ to the ‘Char­i­ty-Bro­kers,’ whose record to date of ‘Crip­ples’ and ‘Deaths’ is TRULY DISGRACEFUL.”

Like many con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists today, Miller’s claims con­tained sev­er­al ker­nels of truth, mis­placed in the ser­vice of a bizarre cru­sade. Research now ties excess con­sump­tion of soft drinks, white flour, and refined sug­ar to an increase in can­cers and heart dis­ease. In this, Miller was pre­scient, giv­en that these are the some of the biggest killers in the coun­try. But this had noth­ing to do with the polio virus. Miller’s uncrit­i­cal think­ing, mis­tak­ing large-scale cor­re­la­tions for cau­sa­tion, typ­i­fies con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. His appeal to the wel­fare of chil­dren also strikes a famil­iar chord, but it’s unsur­pris­ing in this case, giv­en that “polio was a dis­ease of chil­dren,” says René F. Najera, edi­tor of the Col­lege of Physi­cians of Philadelphia’s His­to­ry of Vac­cines project, “so peo­ple were already afraid for their chil­dren.” Com­par­a­tive­ly, COVID-19 “has large­ly left chil­dren alone … so we don’t mobi­lize as much.”

Kep­pler draws many oth­er par­al­lels between Miller’s per­son­al anti-polio vac­cine project and the efforts today to resist the COVID-19 vac­cine, all rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Amer­i­can anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism and the well-fund­ed will to dis­be­lieve what the sci­ence clear­ly demon­strates. Miller dis­trib­uted mail­ers in schools around Flori­da, accept­ed hun­dreds in dona­tions, and print­ed thou­sands of pam­phlets for dis­tri­b­u­tion. He even offered to get inject­ed with the polio virus to show that it was harm­less. How­ev­er, “fed­er­al charges end­ed Miller’s cru­sade,” when he was charged with “send­ing ‘libel­lous, scur­rilous and defam­a­to­ry’ state­ments through the mail” in 1954, the year Salk read­ied nation­wide tri­als of the vac­cine. Five years lat­er, “U.S. polio cas­es were about 14 per­cent of what they were in 1952, thanks to vac­ci­na­tion,” not, as Miller would have the pub­lic believe, a change in diet. “Give us prop­er diets,” he con­tin­ued to write to news­pa­pers, “and we’ll solve the phys­i­cal imper­fec­tions of Amer­i­cans young and old.” He might have been on to a good argu­ment about nutri­tion just by chance, but the pub­lic had no rea­son to lis­ten to his opin­ions about polio sim­ply because he could afford to cir­cu­late them.

via Steve Sil­ber­man

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

How the World’s First Anti-Vax Move­ment Start­ed with the First Vac­cine for Small­pox in 1796, and Spread Fears of Peo­ple Get­ting Turned into Half-Cow Babies

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

Dying in the Name of Vac­cine Free­dom

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

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  • Guillermo Perez Arguello says:

    The tim­ne­line as to how the pub­lic react­ed to Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vac­cine is well known. What was not dis­cussed broad­ly until ear­ly 2020 was the con­tri­bu­tion Pres­ley made in the expo­nen­tial increase in the immu­niza­tion lev­el of all US teens from 0.6 to 80%, in six months. He did that by allow­ing the press to be present when he took the jab, back­stage at Stu­dio 50 on the after­noon of Octo­ber 28, 1956. The deaths of the chil­dren, most derived from vac­ci­na­tions done in late April of 1955, fab­ri­cat­ed at the Cut­ter lab in Berke­ley, CA, had influ­enced teenagers not to take the vac­cine. Pres­ley’s advo­ca­cy and the deci­sion not to use that lab changed that. What not even Pres­ley’s biog­ra­phers have not­ed, is how ter­ri­fied he was of what await­ed him, hav­ing been in New Orleans, 18 months ear­li­er, on the day the top sur­geon in the US, Dr. Alton Ochsner, killed his grand­son and gave polio for life to his grandaugh­ter, as report­ed by the NYT on May 5, 1955. But he could not refuse the offer of the March of Dimes for him to do for US teens what was the right thing. But he was scared, so dou­ble kudos for him, posthu­mous­ly.

  • Diogenes says:

    Guiller­mo above refers oblique­ly to the Cut­ter Inci­dent, by which a lab­o­ra­to­ry by that name released batch­es of the vac­cine with the “live” virus, rather than the atten­u­at­ed virus intend­ed, result­ing in the infec­tion of tens of thou­sands, and the paral­y­sis of more than a hun­dred and killing sev­er­al.

    More­over, for near­ly a decade there­after the vac­cine was pro­duced using meth­ods which entailed the use of mon­key kid­ney cells which result­ed in expos­ing tens of mil­lions of recip­i­ents to con­t­a­m­i­na­tion with simi­an virus, sus­pect­ed as a cause for var­i­ous forms of can­cer.

    In short, the polio vac­cine may be pre­dom­i­nant­ly a suc­cess sto­ry, but it also con­tains details which bespeak cau­tion for those will­ing to look past the over­sim­plis­tic, bina­ry “fol­low the sci­ence” vs. “anti-vaxxers” nar­ra­tive and see them.

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