Pitt celebrates Salk's victory

Researchers and patients in the development of a polio vaccine gather to mark its 50th anniversary

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Stories were told, some grateful tears were shed and many backs were patted at the University of Pittsburgh's community celebration last night of the 50th annivesary of the Salk polio vaccine.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Actor Mickey Rooney speaks during the polio remembrance event at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathederal of Learning in Oakland yesterday. Behind Rooney is a picture of people receiving polio vaccinations at the cathederal. Rooney has been a long-time March of Dimes volunteer in the fight against polio.
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The event, held at the Cathedral of Learning, was a reunion of sorts for more than 300 local "polio pioneers," including those who had the disease, worked in Dr. Jonas Salk's lab at Pitt, or participated in the trials of the vaccine.

Dr. Peter Salk, vice president and scientific director of the Jonas Salk Foundation, paid tribute to his father, saying the "real-life importance of this project was ever present on his mind," and praised the team effort of researchers and the larger Pittsburgh community in the development of the vaccine.

Mickey Rooney and his wife Jan sang "Have a Heart," which the legendary actor wrote to support the March of Dimes fund-raising effort. A 1940 film clip was shown of Rooney and Judy Garland asking viewers to send their dimes to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

Special guest Dr. Tenley Albright, who got polio at age 10 and went on to become America's first female figure skating Olympic gold medalist in 1956, shared her experiences of the disease and her medical care.

"There are so many stories to hear," she said. "I wish we could hear all of them."

A tearful Albright said that thinking of getting her own children vaccinated against polio made her "so grateful" for the many people who participated in vaccine development.

Some attendees took the opportunity to share their memories of the polio years at one of four video stations, or to write down their thoughts about it. Those vignettes will be archived, said Maggie McDonald, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs in health science.

The idea of preserving the polio pioneers's recollections arose early in the planning of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

"We realized how many Pittsburghers had actually been involved in pilot testing of the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and colleagues before the big national field trials," McDonald said.

About 500 people have written to the university about polio and the Salk vaccine since celebration organizers established in February a Web site and phone line to collect the reminiscences.

In addition to anecdotes, some polio pioneers sent in their childhood vaccination cards, newspaper clippings and photos. Responses have come from around the country, and one person wrote from Israel.

"We have a lot of stuff here," McDonald said. "We want this material to go into the Pitt archives and we've been careful not to muck with it." Students, historians and others could then have access to the information for research.

There have been preliminary talks about using the material to develop a high-quality, commemorative brochure that the university could distribute as a remembrance.

McDonald said that a documentary project is also in the works.

It will be developed by Carl Kurlander, a Hollywood screenwriter and producer who is currently a visiting assistant professor at the university.

A scientific symposium will be held at Pitt today and tomorrow to continue the anniversary celebration.

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at anitas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3858.


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