Earth Day 2017 was a wonderful day for a march in San Diego. I joined thousands of scientists and engineers, university professors and K-12 teachers, researchers and laboratory technicians, and people of all ages and from all walks of life in support of scientific research in the United States … and to protest proposed research funding cuts by the current administration. Organizers estimated that 15,000 people were at the San Diego March for Science start at the Civic Center. I would not be surprised if there were over 20,000 of us marching that day in San Diego, joining maybe a million more across the United States.
Hand made signs were the order of the day. Many signs reflected themes seen on signs across the nation. Others were truly local San Diego, which has one of the largest scientific research communities in the United States. One sign really struck me as we walked down Broadway to the Embarcadero. It read: “I have never seen polio … thanks to science.” The young woman carrying was from the Salk Institute and certainly born after polio became a disease of history in the United States. She never experienced a polio scare, and she could not know the memory she triggered for me. The March for Science 2017 quickly became very personal.
In the early 1950s, the polio epidemic in the United States reached a record high of 58,000 new cases in a single year, nearly three times the annual outbreak of the previous decade. Summer polio “scares” were real, resulting in public swimming pool closures and cancelling various community events. Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine came to market in 1955, and the March of Dimes launched its children’s vaccination campaign.
The memory triggered for me was of my first “march for science” — 62 years ago. On a crisp autumn day in 1955, my elementary school class marched — OK, walked — the half mile or so to the Public Health Office in Verona NJ with our teachers to receive our first polio shots. Thanks to Dr. Salk, his vaccine and the National Polio Immunization Program, the annual number of U.S. polio cases fell to 5,600 by 1957 and less than 200 by 1961.
Paralysis was a lifelong sentence for those who contracted and survived polio. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I first met victims of the polio epidemic, teenagers my own age who were left crippled for life by polio. As a young adult, I also had co-workers worked who were polio survivors. They all walked only with the assistance of heavy braces … and an apparent resentment for their fate.
On Earth Day, I remembered all of them as I was able to walk unencumbered along the San Diego habor. Thank you to young woman from the Salk Institute and her sign for the memory. And thank you Dr. Salk, your University of Pittsburgh research team and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis for giving us the first effective polio vaccine.
Norbert J. Kubilus, CCP MBCS is President & CEO of Coleman University, a private non-profit teaching university founded in 1963 and located in San Diego, California. Its degree programs prepare graduates for technology-focused careers. visit www.coleman.edu