Reporter's notebook: Polio 55 years later
Published 1:05 am, Friday, April 9, 2010
Remember the way the world held its breath while awaiting Astronaut Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon in 1969?
Similar anticipation wrapped around the world on April 12, 1955.
People were awaiting word from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on whether Dr. Jonas Salk's experimental polio vaccine from the University of Pittsburgh worked -- a signal that polio epidemics were ended.
As a reporter for Hearst's Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, I was in the press herd at Ann Arbor. Naturally, I was sweating blood to get my hands on the report before anyone. I itched to beat big guns from Life, Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times.
The development of the Salk polio vaccine, in the pipeline since 1938, was the biggest story of my career. My husband, Don McCormack, the Tele's assistant managing editor, and I teamed the week before the polio vaccine verdict to write some 24 stories about the vaccine for the April 12, 1955 special.
The night before the press was allowed in the science center at U-M, Ed Diamond and I cased the exterior of the building. Diamond was science editor of Hearst's International News Service (INS) in New York. At every stage of the vaccine's development, I regularly briefed Diamond.
Our intention on April 11 was to break in and steal a copy of the report, achieving an exclusive story.
"There's got to be someway in through the basement windows," Diamond whispered in a loud voice. Training flashlights on cellar panes, we could see people inside circling stacks of reports on platforms with wheels.
"Quiet down, Ed," I yelled. "Do you want everyone to know what we're up to?"
Now and then we bumped into other reporters with suspected similar intentions.
We pressed on without success, then defeated, retreated to our hotel.
On the way I reminded Diamond that the Hearst slogan "get it first, but first get it right" says nothing about illegal entry and/or stealing.
Next morning, ushered into the press center at the Science Hall first thing, I inspected and secured the Sun-Telegraph's station where the paper had arranged an open phone line to the city desk in Pittsburgh. That was so I could phone in the verdict on the polio vaccine field trials, which Dr. Thomas Francis was to deliver
The anticipation in the science community and among reporters was that the verdict would be positive. To demonstrate safety, after all, Salk had vaccinated himself first, then his wife, then his sons.
After that, and in earlier stages of development of the vaccine, Salk gave the vaccine to children at the D.T. Watson Home for cripples in a Pittsburgh suburb.
Emotions running at high on April 12, I double-checked the phone line to the Sun-Tele's city desk, establishing contact with my husband, Don, assistant city editor. We double checked our modus operandi.
Then I shuffled into the press conference room with the herd. Doors were locked behind us. No one could grab a report and race to a phone -- this was before cell phones. Rapid communication, weighed against today's cyberspace, was in the dark ages.
The report from Dr.Thomas Francis, renowned epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, was exactly as I anticipated. That anticipation was based on the precision with which I observed Salk, from 1951 on, demonstrating as he moved from step to step in development of the vaccine bearing his name.
He kept his laboratories churning 24/7 to bring in the vaccine ahead of other scientists in the race.
When the restless press herd was let out of the locked press conference room, I had to latch myself to anything stable to keep from literally being swept underfoot.
When I reached my open phone in the press center, I was sobbing and angry to find a newsreel tripod and a cameraman over my precious open phone.
I grabbed the phone and sobbed into the mouthpiece. Literally, I was crying so hard I could not say a word. (Reporters aren't supposed to be overcome with emotion. But I was.)
"Does it work?" asked the level steady voice on the other end of the phone -- my husband Don's voice. "Does it work?" he asked again.
"Uh-huh," I sobbed. Only he could have known what I meant.
I heard him yell across the city room "It works."
Then I heard Copy Editor Harold Dietrich, who had an open line to the composing room, repeat: "It works."
That two-word lead was put on the story in the composing room. The presses rolled and then they roared as the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph "extra" of April 12, 1955, rolled and roared off the presses.
"It works" was what Pittsburgh and the world was waiting for.
Patricia McCormack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.