Elvis Presley Gets His Polio Shot

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3

In 1954, the New York City Department of Health launched a massive publicity campaign to promote vaccination against polio. Columnist and media bigwig Walter Winchell threw cold water on the effort, saying the vaccine, developed from an inactivated virus by Jonas Salk, “may be a killer.” This invited a correction from Salk himself. The following year almost 900 thousand New Yorkers were vaccinated, and the number of new cases declined sharply.

Backstage at CBS Studio 50, before a 1956 airing of The Ed Sullivan Show, New York City Commissioner of Health Leona Baumgartner, right, holds the arm of Elvis Presley as Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst administers the polio vaccine to the king of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1963, the health commissioner at that time announced that vaccination had reduced the number of new cases in Gotham to zero.

The story is told on the website of the NYC Department of Records and Information Services. With an NEH grant awarded in 2017, the New York Municipal Archives has been processing records of city health commissioners from 1929 to 1991. An NEH grant to the University of Cincinnati in 2010 supported the digitization of the letters and photos of Albert Sabin, creator of the other polio vaccine that helped erase the disease that annually paralyzed and killed thousands of American children and young adults as well as many other persons worldwide.