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Leona Baumgartner, Elvis, and the Fight Against Polio

Sunday, August 18, 2013 - 05:00 AM

WNYC

If it's good enough for Elvis, it's good enough for you and your child - On the birthday of the city's first female Health Commissioner, we honor Dr. Leona Baumgartner and the New York City publicity campaign for the polio vaccine.

'"The Crippler" is coming for your child!'   The idea that a hideous monster in the form of a disease could attack the vitality of the nation's youth was a familiar story line to movie-going audiences in 1950s America.  The Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had launched a brilliant campaign to raise money for poliomelytis research; the "March of Dimes" asked every American to mail one dime to the White House to be part of the cure.  Then, in April of 1955, the announcement that Americans had been waiting for came: Dr. Jonas Salk had successfully created and tested a vaccine for polio.  The Foundation continued its publicity blitz, this time encouraging parents to bring their children in for the series of three doses of the vaccine.

Although the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was a private organization, it relied heavily on state and municipal health departments to spread the word and provide vaccinations.  No urban health department was larger that that of New York City, which had historically been at the forefront of many innovative programs.  Nor was any health department led by a more exuberant public figure.  Dr. Leona Baumgartner, M.D., Ph.D., was appointed Heath Commissioner in 1954 (she served until 1962) by Mayor Robert Wagner, becoming the first woman to hold the title.

Dr. Baumgartner was born August 18, 1902.  She began her career at the New York City Department of Health in 1937, and, as a trained pediatrician, she quickly rose through its ranks via infant and maternal health.  A consummate master of public relations and communication, she made extensive use of radio and television to reach the residents of New York City with her health education messages, often assuming the tone of an aunt giving advice to a first time mother, particularly in her radio addresses. She made many public appearances each year as commissioner and wrote numerous articles in popular magazines with national readerships. She also recorded several "Campus Press Conferences" for WNYC, during which student reporters from Hunter College, Columbia’s School of Journalism, Fordham University and New York University interviewed her. 

One of Dr. Baumgartner’s major projects was to ensure that as many New Yorkers as possible received the polio vaccine. Although at the time the general public had an almost blind faith in medical science, their trust was tested in 1955 when Cutter Laboratories in California released batches of the vaccine containing a virulent strain of live poliovirus, an error which eventually left eleven children dead and hundreds paralyzed.  Her job as health commissioner was to educate, gently cajole and reassure the public that the vaccine was safe and effective.  (Interestingly, Dr. Alexander Langmuir, the man who identified the source of the outbreak in the Cutter incident, would later become Dr. Baumgartner's second husband).

To calm public fears, Baumgartner used a no nonsense, common sense tone in her radio broadcasts.   As a public health professional, she relied on statistics but she was careful never to make unfounded speculations; all her assertions were grounded in scientific research, all the while stressing what the public could do to improve its own health.   Since school age children had been the major targets of the vaccine campaign, she focused on older teens, young adults and those under the age of forty.  She wanted to start "a conspiracy with young people to round up their parents" for polio shots, describing the polio vaccine as "the finest Christmas present you can give your family."   To this end, the Department of Health ran a "holiday family special," from December 26-28 1956 - free polio vaccines shots at all of the City's twenty three district health centers.   No proof of income was required.

The icing on her polio public relations campaign cake was a photograph carried by newspapers of Dr. Baumgartner standing next to Elvis Presley while he received his polio vaccine - fit for a king!

Guests:

Leona Baumgartner

Editors:

Marcos Sueiro Bal

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