Documentary shows Salk’s polio vaccine was also a Pittsburgh story
Comedian Larry David, of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame, does a stand-up bit supposing what it must have been like to live next door to the mother of Dr. Jonas Salk.
“Did I happen to mention,” begins David, portraying Mrs. Salk as the quintessential boastful Jewish mother, “did I happen to mention, that my son Jonas, who your son Stevie never let play in the games … did I happen to mention that he discovered the cure for polio?
The development of the polio vaccine was one of the most significant medical advancements of the 20th century, saving hundreds of thousands of children worldwide from the most dreaded disease of the time. And, while no one would begrudge Mrs. Salk of her bragging rights, according to a new film by University of Pittsburgh professor Carl Kurlander and his students, the city of Pittsburgh deserves those rights as well for fostering a community that pulled together to help Salk in his quest for an end to polio.
“The Shot Felt ’Round the World” will have its world premiere Wednesday, April 14, at a private screening at the Twentieth Century Club, just blocks from where the vaccine was developed. The premiere will be hosted by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor Robert Hill. Many of those who were involved in the effort to develop the vaccine are expected to attend the event, including Dr. Peter Salk and Dr. Jonathan Salk, sons of Jonas Salk.
The film, which was supported by a grant from the University of Pittsburgh, is comprised of interviews with those who were involved in the valiant campaign to end polio, including Dr. Sidney Busis, who performed tracheotomies on young iron lung patients on the polio ward of Municipal Hospital, while three floors below, lab technicians were pipetting the live polio virus by mouth.
Other “everyday heroes” celebrated in the film include James Sarkett and Ron Flynn, polio patients at Municipal Hospital and the D.T. Watson Institute, who had selflessly volunteered to be the recipients of an experimental vaccine from which they could not benefit directly; and former Pittsburgh school children, who had been among the first healthy human volunteers to receive the still-experimental Salk vaccine before 1.8 million Americans would follow in their footsteps.
The film also gives a fresh portrait of Jonas Salk, who as a boy had “prayed that he could do something good for humanity.”
Although there have been other documentaries about the development of the polio vaccine, “no one else has focused on those seven years (1947-1954) in Pittsburgh,” Kurlander said, noting that Salk left Pittsburgh in 1962, and eventually went on to work on combating the AIDS virus.
“He (Salk) didn’t spend a lot of time talking about Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about Salk,” Kurlander said. “There have been other movies about polio, but we (Pittsburghers) were the ones who were actually there.”
Other polio documentaries “barely paused in Pittsburgh,” said Laura Davis, who produced the film along with Kurlander, speaking from her home in Los Angeles.
“The story of what happened in Pittsburgh really had not been told,” said Davis, who grew up in Squirrel Hill. “And something amazing happened in my city. I realized the really big story — the number one story — was, in theory, what could happen in any American city if enough people decided to band together and lick a problem.
“The bigger question is, could something like that only happen back then, or could we do something like that now? I don’t really know the answer, but as a filmmaker, my job is to ask that question.”
The film portrays Pittsburgh’s army of volunteers as an essential element in the battle against polio.
“One of the most inspiring things to me about the story is that instead of waiting for someone else to do something about polio, an entire city rolled up its sleeves and just decided to get it done,” said Tjardus Greidanus, who wrote, directed and edited the film. “Dr. Salk was an extraordinary man and Pittsburgh was lucky to have him, but he couldn’t have succeeded without the selfless efforts of the city’s volunteers.”
“The Shot Felt ’Round the World” marks the first time that many of those directly involved in the development of the vaccine have been interviewed on camera.
“We were frankly amazed that Julius Younger, the Pitt senior scientist who worked closely with Dr. Salk and who was a key member of his team, hadn’t been interviewed for more [polio documentaries], and that other surviving members of the Salk lab hadn’t been interviewed at all,” Greidanus said.
The film goes beyond the saga of ending polio, Kurlander insists, and the story is also a Jewish story.
“We hope that ‘The Shot Felt ’Round The World’ is a call to action for the many challenges we face today, but that it resonates particularly for the Jewish community, which frequently cites Jonas Salk as one of it heroes, to remind us of just what can be accomplished with the collective effort and selfless spirit which was such a part of developing the polio vaccine,” he said.
“Or,” Kurlander added, “to quote his younger son Dr. Jonathan Salk, in the film, ‘I think my Dad asked himself every day why can’t this happen about other things … why can’t this happen about poverty, why can’t this happen about public health in a whole lot of ways”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)