How Hollywood Helped Fight the Polio Pandemic

How Hollywood Helped Fight the Polio Pandemic

By Anne Rowe for DPS board, April 10, 2020

When the world faced the polio pandemic in the mid-20th century, the reactions were similar to today. Travel restrictions were put in place, individuals and even towns were quarantined, entertainment events were canceled — and showbiz pitched in to help.

Radio shows and movie theaters —  the dominant forms of pop culture in those days — spearheaded the efforts to battle the disease. On Jan. 24, 1938, Variety reported that radio stations had united to raise $1 million in one week, which translates to $18 million today. According to the report, “The campaign was begun by singer-comic Eddie Cantor, who headed the screen-radio committee of the newly formed Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,” which was nicknamed the March of Dimes.

Cantor on his radio show made a pitch for listeners to each send in a dime to the White House to help purchase medical equipment and supplies. Other radio stations united in the effort, and the March of Dimes became an ongoing crusade.

From the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Variety carried hundreds of reports about the pandemic. According to the CDC, “Polio was once one of the most-feared diseases in the U.S.” An estimated 35,000 people each year in the late 1940s contracted the disease, and children were especially vulnerable.

Nobody was immune. Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1933-45, had been diagnosed in 1921 with poliomyelitis, although now some medical analysts believe he had Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neuropathy condition, rather than polio.

In 1944, theater owners ran a trailer starring Greer Garson (who’d won the lead actress Oscar the previous year) asking for in-theater donations to battle polio; 11,000 exhibitors (with an 800-seat average house) collected money before the start of the main film and raised $4.5 million.

Also in ’44, theaters were feeling the effects of the disease. Detroit ended all special weekend matinees until infantile paralysis, aka polio, had come under control. The story said, “Detroit is having one of the worst polio epidemics in its history and the opening of school already has been postponed for two weeks.” Parents had been advised to keep kids “out of crowds and theaters.”

A 1946 Variety front-page story reported that five Denver movie theaters would be shutting down, after the epidemic had cut business by 50%.

“The slash in business is not expected to lessen until cool weather puts an end to new polio cases,” reported Variety. “Colorado schools are not opening until two weeks later than usual and all youth under 18 are forbidden to attend a public gathering in the state.”

Among the films that addressed the topic was RKO’s 1946 “Sister Kenny,” directed by Dudley Nichols and starring Rosalind Russell. It was the fact-based story of an Australian nurse who had rung alarm bells about the dangers of polio, only to be ignored by her superiors.

On Sept. 26, 1949, Variety said that about 75 members of the Screen Writers Guild (forerunner of the WGA) were hoping to raise $5 million for a hospital that would target polio treatment. Guild VP Dan Hartman had a teenage daughter who had contracted the disease.

Despite the battles, the virus spread. According to the History of Vaccines website, 1952 saw 57,628 reported cases of polio in the U.S. Later that year, Dr. Jonas Salk began vaccine tests. In 1955, the U.S. government licensed use of the vaccine, after a University of Michigan test was announced 80% to 90% effective.

Thanks to vaccines — specifically, the injection in 1955 and the oral vaccine in 1963 — the number of polio cases plummeted; there were fewer than 100 cases in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s.

Of course, in those days, there were no anti-vax celebrities trying to discourage people from immunization.