Polio’s ‘hidden figures’ in Tuskegee
At the height of segregation, a group of Black doctors and scientists focused on stopping polio
Something was wrong with Myron Thompson. In 1949, as polio was sweeping the American South, the tiny toddler — just 2 years old — spiked a high fever and struggled to move. Terrified, his mother rushed him to the nearby hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama — a magnificent, red-brick building where a portico with four columns welcomed patients like a grand hotel. There, doctors and nurses who specialized in treating children with polio welcomed the child with open arms and began helping him immediately.
It wasn’t until years later that Thompson realized how fortunate he was to receive such top-notch care as a Black child with the disease. The facility where he was treated — the Infantile Paralysis Center at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, located on the campus of a Black college — was the only place in the United States built specifically to treat Black children with polio. Elsewhere in the Jim Crow South, hospitals would regularly turn Black patients away, or, if they did admit them, they might relegate them to separate quarters or give them subpar care. “It wasn’t just that I was treated,” says Thompson, his voice soft and measured, his eyes serious behind his wire-rim glasses. “I was treated with dignity.”
The Tuskegee Institute, as the university was then called, was a special place — not only because children received high-quality treatment at its hospital like Thompson, but because on that same campus Black scientists were conducting research that would play a critical role in the success of the first polio vaccine and help eliminate the deadly disease in the United States.
That story, in the shadow of a deeply segregated country, is one that’s not gotten its due. In Alabama, Rotary District 6880 is working to change that.
For Sam Adams, it started with a swimming pool.
It was 2017, and as the governor-nominee for District 6880, he’d been visiting Rotary clubs in the southern half of Alabama to meet members and raise money for The Rotary Foundation’s Annual Fund. At a greasy spoon off the highway in Tuskegee, Rotary members told Adams two things that lit a fire in him: first, that Rotary founder Paul Harris traveled to Tuskegee several times in the 1940s, spending the winter there. And second, there was a rumor that the Civilian Conservation Corps built an indoor swimming pool in town for people with polio under the guidance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was stricken with the disease in his 30s.
“I said, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’” recalls Adams, a member of the Rotary Club of Montgomery. “This was really unique, because it had something to do with polio.”
Adams is a history lover. But until that day, his familiarity with Tuskegee was mostly limited to happenings that the town and the institute are most famous for: the Tuskegee Airmen, the military’s first all-Black flying unit, fighting for the country in World War II at a time when Black people were not allowed in many colleges, public pools, or libraries. He knew about the U.S. Public Health Service’s Tuskegee syphilis study, which became the poster child for human rights abuses after researchers and doctors lied to hundreds of Black men, most of whom were poor and illiterate, and let them suffer without treatment for syphilis from 1932 to 1972.
His interest piqued, Adams began doing research to try to track down the site of the pool. In time, he enlisted the help of Bruce McNeal, who had become the district governor-nominee after Adams served as district governor. McNeal searched and searched but didn't have much luck — that is, until he connected with Dana Chandler, the archivist and an associate professor of history at Tuskegee University.
That, recalls Adams, is when the floodgates opened. "Bruce called me up and said, 'Sam, I think I found what you were looking for, but it's not a swimming pool. It's a whole massive effort to help people with polio and prevent polio,'" Adams says.
Chandler is a megaphone for all that Tuskegee University has accomplished. He's been the university archivist since 2007 and, with Edith Powell, co-authored the book To Raise Up the Man Farthest Down: Tuskegee University's Advancements in Human Health, 1881-1987. He regaled McNeal with the school's illustrious past. Booker T. Washington, born into slavery, founded the institute at Tuskegee in 1881, and it achieved university status in 1985. George Washington Carver was an instructor and researcher, teaching students and farmers about new agricultural techniques. And the school is the backdrop for a remarkable array of "firsts." Those include building the first hospital for African Americans in Alabama (the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital) and organizing National Negro Health Week and the National Negro Business League. In the first half of the 20th century, the Tuskegee Institute also played a large part in treating — and preventing — polio.
In the 1930s, Black families had few options if a child got polio. Not only was it difficult to find care — even Roosevelt's Georgia Warm Springs Foundation banned Black people from the waters — but the consensus in the medical establishment at the time was that African Americans were much less susceptible to polio. The problem was that a lot of white doctors felt that Black people didn't get polio, says Chandler.
In reality, doctors working at Tuskegee's John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital had been treating Black children with polio for years and had developed a stellar reputation nationally for their public health work. In 1939, in response to pressure from Black activists to end medical racism and offer treatment options to Black families, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis gave out its largest grant to date to establish the Infantile Paralysis Center at the hospital. Roosevelt and his former law partner, Basil O'Connor, had recently established the foundation, which would become the March of Dimes. "Paralysis Center Set Up for Negroes," read The New York Times headline on 22 May 1939.
The article quotes O'Connor: "The Tuskegee polio center will do much more than provide the most modern treatment for Negro infantile paralysis victims. It will train Negro doctors and surgeons for orthopedic work," he said. "It will train Negroes as orthopedic nurses. It will train Negroes as physiotherapists. Tuskegee will disseminate educational information to all Negro doctors with respect to early diagnosis and the proper care and aftertreatment of infantile paralysis. Tuskegee will constitute an important sector in the foundation's fighting front in combating the terrible crippling effects of infantile paralysis."
When the center opened in 1941, it was staffed by Black health care professionals to serve Black families. And it was the only place you could go to in the nation if you were Black that exclusively provided polio treatment.
When Thompson, who is 76, remembers his time at the Infantile Paralysis Center, he still feels a sense of awe. Everything about the place made him feel important, from the building's architecture to the people who worked there. It was where he learned to use a wheelchair and then leg braces and then began to walk, unsupported. The Infantile Paralysis Center would, to him, remain a special place, where nurses hugged and comforted him, and doctors treated him with love and respect.
One doctor who sticks out is John Chenault, who was, according to The New York Times, one of two Black orthopedists in the country in 1939; he was head of orthopedics at John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital and became the first director of the Infantile Paralysis Center. "I remember him as kind and gentle," he says. "He would not speak down to me. He would stoop down to me. To him, no one was more important than the child."
If health care experiences can be considered idyllic, Thompson's was. And so was his childhood. He describes Tuskegee in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s as a kind of island in a society of total segregation. It had a vibrant middle class Black community. Most people who worked there were affiliated with the institute and its hospital or the local Veterans Administration Hospital. "The society in which I grew up was totally Black," he says. It wasn't until 1965, when he went to Yale University that he was around white people for the first time.
For Thompson, learning how other Black people were treated in Alabama and across the country came as a shock. Growing up, he recalls visiting family members in other towns and realizing how fortunate he was. "These Black Alabamians did not walk through the front door of a stately building like Tuskegee," he says. "They walked most often through the basement. And that's assuming the hospital would take them."
In the 1950s, polio was spreading around the globe and paralyzing or killing more than 500,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists were hard at work trying to develop a vaccine.
One of those scientists was Jonas Salk, toiling in the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, more than 600 miles northeast of Tuskegee. With the support of the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis, Salk developed a polio vaccine using inactivated poliovirus. He first injected the vaccine into monkeys, and when that proved promising, he began administering it to volunteers, including himself, his wife, and his children. The next step, in 1954, was to test the effectiveness of the vaccine on hundreds of thousands of school children known as Polio Pioneers, in what would become the largest field trial of its time. It was sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Vaccine testing required a near endless supply of human cells. That had only recently become possible because of a Black woman: Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Lacks sought treatment for a painful condition at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals where poor African Americans could get medical treatment. It turned out to be cervical cancer. A doctor took a cell sample from her large tumor without her knowledge or permission, which was customary at that time. Lacks died soon after, but those cells did not. They were unique in their ability to thrive and multiply, doubling within 24 hours, instead of dying as normal cells would do. Given the name HeLa cells, they would go on to become a critical component of medical research. (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells an extensive history of Lacks, her family, and the ethics of this now famous case.) And to test the effectiveness of Salk's polio vaccine, scientists would need an astronomical number of HeLa cells.
Meanwhile, other important puzzle pieces had been coming together at Tuskegee, Chandler and Powell note in their book. O'Connor, as the president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, had been named chair of Tuskegee's board of trustees in 1946. Across campus, Carver had scrimped and saved his earnings to fund the George Washington Carver Foundation, established in 1940 to train Black scientists in advanced agricultural research. Carver, who died in 1943, had a keen interest in helping polio patients, including using peanut oil he developed to massage their muscles.
When the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis needed a laboratory to produce massive amounts of HeLa cells to test Salk's vaccine, the stars aligned at the Tuskegee Institute. Writing in their book, Chandler and Powell address the question "Why Tuskegee?" "Why not turn to a white institution, previously experienced in laboratory research?" they ask. "And if not a white institution, why not Meharry Medical College or the prestigious Hampton [Institute]?"
Their conclusion: "Primarily, it was the intimate relationship between the NFIP [National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis] and Tuskegee that led to the important decision to construct and utilize a modern and up-to-date research facility for the propagation and mass distribution of the HeLa cells."
While Tuskegee researchers were well versed in cell biology, they needed to be trained in the process of developing and storing HeLa cells. Russell Brown, director of the Carver Foundation, was named principal investigator of the HeLa cell project, and James "Jimmy" Henderson, a researcher immersed in work with cell cultures, was named co-investigator.
In the dead of winter, January 1953, both traveled to Minneapolis to train at the University of Minnesota with researchers who conducted early work using HeLa cells. In a 2021 Scientific American article, Ainissa Ramirez writes of how the two arrived on a segregated campus and were given housing on the edge of the university. "Under the Minnesota stars, Brown and Henderson learned the basics of cell and tissue culture and designed their Tuskegee laboratory, preparing for the renovations that would begin when they returned," she writes. In a few weeks, they soaked up all they could and returned to Alabama, putting their new knowledge to work in February.
In April 1954, the Salk vaccine trials began in McLean, Virginia, and reached across the United States, Canada, and Finland. All told, 1.8 million children participated in the trial, some getting the vaccine, others getting a placebo, and still others serving as a control group.
To test the vaccine's effectiveness, researchers would mix poliovirus with a blood sample from a vaccinated child, then add the mix to a tube containing HeLa cells, which are very susceptible to poliovirus. If the vaccine worked, antibodies in the blood would attack the poliovirus, protecting the HeLa cells from infection. If it didn't, the surviving poliovirus would attack the HeLa cells, and scientists could see the resulting misshapen HeLa cells under a microscope.
A 1955 article in The New York Times details the enormity of that work at Tuskegee: 25 Black scientists and technicians participated in the testing, producing about 12,000 tubes of HeLa cells to ship to laboratories each week. "The cells are grown at Tuskegee in a long line of incubators, measured into culture tubes and shipped by air in special packaging that contains a substance that maintains a correct growth-temperature for at least ninety-six hours in the package," it reads.
The article details how 27 laboratories across the country were participating in the testing of 40,000 blood samples from children in the field trials. "About half of the laboratories are using HeLa cells prepared at the Carver foundation's installations on Tuskegee's campus," it notes.
On 12 April 1955, researchers announced the results: The Salk vaccine was deemed 80 percent to 90 percent effective at preventing paralytic polio. Not long after, another vaccine developed by physician and microbiologist Albert Sabin was approved as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio cases in the U.S. dropped from nearly 58,000 in 1952 to about 5,500 in 1957, and by 1965 had fallen to 72. At Tuskegee, the Infantile Paralysis Center closed its doors in 1975, no longer needed.
Today, wild poliovirus has been eradicated in all countries but two: Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Tuskegee's involvement in these efforts is well documented, and yet the contribution is relatively unknown, even to Alabama residents. So as McNeal and Adams learned of these accomplishments, it became clear to them that recognition of the hidden heroes was long overdue. "We decided as Rotarians and as a Rotary district we wanted to bring to life some of the history there," says McNeal.
In 2019, McNeal made his first trip to Tuskegee University, where Chandler introduced him to the archives. "We found a picture of one of the famous physicians on campus, and a nurse that would take care of some of the polio victims, and a polio victim," says McNeal. "The picture itself told the story of the love and the treatment that happened on campus."
That's when the idea struck: What if they were to use that photo to fashion a statue in front of the old Infantile Paralysis Center? After getting approval from the university's trustees, Rotary District 6880 started raising funds to pay for the monument. Adams enlisted the help of his friend Graham Champion, a lobbyist in Montgomery and past president of the Rotary Club of Montgomery.
The process was slow. Champion found that he needed to educate everyone he spoke with about Tuskegee's important work. "When folks think about research at Tuskegee, unfortunately what they think about is the Tuskegee syphilis project," he says. "They don't think about anything really this good. They don't think about the work that George Washington Carver did in terms of peanut research or the agricultural research that he did. They just look at Tuskegee as being a small Black college. And it really is a phenomenal institution."
Champion's tireless work paid off, and he helped raise $177,000 — more than half of which came from appropriations from the Alabama Legislature, and the rest from individuals, foundations, Rotary clubs, District 6880 grants, and other entities.
In August 2022, the bronze statue depicting Dr. Chenault, nurse Warrena Turpin, and a polio patient named Gordon Stewart was unveiled in front of the old Infantile Paralysis Center, now the Legacy Museum. In attendance were Thompson, family members of the scientists and researchers, leaders of the March of Dimes, faculty and staff of Tuskegee University, state officials, and the Rotary members behind the project.
For McNeal, the unveiling was like the culmination of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that took years to assemble (although he never did find that pool). Now, the monument will forever honor those men and women for their dedication and service. "It's a well-kept secret," says McNeal. "Putting the monument and the statue there, it really brings it to life."
The impact of those doctors and scientists lives on through people like Thompson, who is now a U.S. District Court judge. Over a video call in January, he sat in his Montgomery courtroom, a place so important to civil rights history it's referred to as America's Courtroom, and reflected on how polio changed his life. As a child, he couldn't run because of his affected leg. So he adapted. He rode his bike and became a fast swimmer. He found solace and joy in books and studying and music. He developed inner strength and resilience. And he felt a deep appreciation for everyone who helped him along the way. Today, he walks proudly, with only a slight limp.
Thompson didn't know until recently about Tuskegee's role in the polio vaccine. But when he found out, he wasn't surprised; he knew some of those brilliant scientists personally, after all. What's more amazing to Thompson is that they were able to make this progress despite the period of history in which they were working. "They did these phenomenal things," he says. "It's just amazing, when you consider that they did it with this opposition."
After Thompson graduated from Yale Law School in 1972, he returned to Alabama. He became the first Black assistant attorney general for the state and then its first Black bar examiner. After President Jimmy Carter nominated him to be a District Court judge for the Middle District of Alabama at age 33, he became the state's second Black federal judge. He has presided over landmark cases, including the highly publicized 2002 case in which Thompson ordered Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courtroom.
Thompson credits his health experiences for shaping his view of the law and how it should serve people. He says he doesn't subscribe to the philosophy that everyone can lift themselves up by their bootstraps, because that wasn't his experience. "We are all products of sacrifices, by our mothers, our dads, by our aunts, by our grandfathers, by our neighbors, by our whole community. They come together to make us who we are," he says. "I have stood on the shoulders of many other people, and I'm very thankful for it."
When Thompson first saw the polio recognition monument, which bears the familiar face of his childhood doctor, Dr. Chenault, he felt grateful that the important contributions from his hometown were finally being recognized.
He hopes that one day when people hear the word "Tuskegee" they won't just think of the negative history. They'll also know about the Black doctors and scientists who helped turn the tide on polio, even when the odds were against them.
This story originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.