No results found.

Sorry. Please try using the category links or the search field.

Inoculating Omaha: The 1950’s and the Polio Vaccine

With all the talk of a COVID-19 vaccine circulating over the past weeks, we thought it would be timely to look at another vaccine story that captured Americans’ attention and imagination 65 years ago. In the 1940s and 50s, parents lived in fear of polio, and doctors were confounded by it. During the summer months, children were often warned against going to swimming pools, movie theaters, and other areas full of kids.

In the years before vaccines, about 500,000 people around the world died or became paralyzed annually as a result of the illness.[1] In the United States, 1952 saw the worst spike, with 20,000 cases resulting in paralytic polio.[2]

At the same time that the epidemic was reaching such proportions, however, people began to speak hopefully about the prospect of a new vaccine that could protect people, especially children, from the disease. Polio was originally called “Infantile Paralysis” because it affected children so disproportionately. Attempts to develop a vaccine dated as early as the 1930s, but it was almost twenty years later – in 1953 – that it started to look like it could become a reality.[3] The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had been building on this original research for sixteen years when it started to look like Dr. Jonas Salk, an epidemiologist from Pittsburgh, had finally had a breakthrough. He had spent years developing his vaccine, which contained a killed version of the virus and was delivered through multiple injections.[4] He tested the vaccine on monkeys and mice, and administered it to his wife and children at the beginning of its trial. In April of 1954, large-scale trials began across the country, including in Omaha. About 4,600 second graders around the city were given the opportunity to receive the virus with parental consent.[5] More than one million people in forty states participated in the trial, which was the country’s first double-blind placebo-controlled study.[6]

Domenico Caporale, an official of the Omaha-Douglas County Health Department, drove to Lincoln to pick up Douglas County’s share of vaccine doses. He is pictured as he unloads boxes of the vaccine upon his arrival back in Omaha, photo taken on May 1, 1954. Image from Omaha World-Herald photo archive courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Jonas Salk’s name has gone down in history, but his was not the only vaccine developed during this decade, nor is it the only one in use today. Dr. Albert Sabin of Cincinnati developed an orally administered vaccine containing a weakened version of the virus. This one was cheaper to produce and easier to distribute on a large scale (this was particularly important for getting it to less-developed countries who had benefited much less from the Salk vaccine, which was in wide use in the United States). Dr. Sabin’s vaccine wasn’t widely used in the United States until after its 1959 trial in the Soviet Union.[7]

In the next few years, gatherings known as “Sabin Oral Sundays” (or SOS events) became common throughout the country – mass vaccination events aimed at inoculating entire communities efficiently. Omaha had its first SOS day in 1962. At one event in May 1962, there were sixty locations around town that served over 380,000 residents of Omaha and Council Bluffs in just one day. There was a “suggested fee” of 25 cents, but no compulsory charge for the vaccination.[8]

A man identified as “Mr. Morton” receives his dose as his children get set to follow at an SOS event at Jefferson School. Image from Omaha World-Herald photo archive courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Some of the conversations we’re hearing today on distribution, access, and awareness are almost like a 60-year-old echo. In 1959, The Omaha Star wrote that, four years after the Salk vaccine had been approved for wide use in the United States, 98 million Americans remained un-vaccinated “at a time when there is ample polio vaccine and the surplus is spoiling in the shelves.”[9] Polio outbreaks in the years following the vaccine’s availability affected people of color and low-income neighborhoods at much higher rates than white and more affluent communities.[10]

For more polio-related items in our collection, see our blog post on Avery Hiddleston, and Omaha boy who was partially paralyzed by polio in the 1920s: http://douglascohistory.org/avery-zeke-hiddleston/

[1]What is Polio?” Canadian International Immunization Initiative. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 29, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070929090612/http://www.immunize.cpha.ca/english/consumer/consrese/pdf/Polio.pdf

[2] “Poliomyelitis Vaccination in the United States.” Institute of Medicine Vaccine Safety Forum. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK231547/

[3] Hickok, Kimberly. “Who Invented the Polio Vaccine?” LiveScience. June 1, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/polio-virus-vaccine.html

[4] “Whatever Happened to Polio?” National Museum of American History, Behring Center (Smithsonian Institution). https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/index.htm

[5] Sullivan, Robert. “What About this Polio Vaccine?” Omaha World-Herald. April 18, 1954, p. 78.

[6] Hickok, Kimberly. “Who Invented the Polio Vaccine?” LiveScience. June 1, 2020. https://www.livescience.com/polio-virus-vaccine.html

[7] https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/what-happened-when-million-nebraskans-drank-polio-punch

[8] “Cups, Droppers and Spoons Used: More than 380 Thousand Receive Sabin Vaccine.” Omaha World-Herald. May 28, 1962. p. 25.

[9] “98 Million Americans Have Not Made Use of the Salk Vaccine.” The Omaha Star. April 24, 1959. p. 1.

[10] “Important to You.” The Omaha Star. August 7, 1959. p. 4.

1918 Influenza pandemic

Douglas County has endured the tragedy of a pandemic multiple times since its beginning in 1854.  Records provide some idea of how the influenza pandemics of 1889, 1899, 1957, 1968, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1997 affected our community. The catastrophic pandemic of 1918 became the single greatest natural catastrophe since the Black Death in the 1300s.

Of course, these records do not tell the personal stories of those who lived and died during these terrible times in our County’s history. I urge you to share your stories of the current pandemic by using the links below, calling our office to schedule an interview, or writing it down and mailing it in.  Our stories are critically important history.  I’ll start by sharing a couple of personal stories.

In February of 1957, the H2N2 virus emerged in China.  It claimed 116,000 lives in the United States.  One of those lives was my older brother, just a toddler. No statistics on the number of deaths in Omaha in November of 1957 begin to describe the pain.  This year, our family has been looking forward to two weddings!  My nephew and his fiancée made the prudent decision to move their June 2020 wedding to June 2021.  I hope and pray my son’s wedding in September will be able to go forward as planned.  We have all been affected by this pandemic.  Together we can document stories, photos, and statistics for future generations to have a better idea of what it was like.  Statistics are not enough.

Omaha in 1918 had a population of around 180,000.  In September of 1918, the Omaha Daily Bee began to publish some articles about an influenza outbreak.  The big news story for all newspapers was the end of World War I. The outbreak of illness that was primarily concentrated on the military did not make major headlines.  This biological invasion of the world was known by various names; in the U.S., the Spanish flu, Japan – “wrestlers fever”, England – “Flanders grippe”, Germany – “Blitz Katarr”.

The first wave began in the spring and summer of 1918 and was present in the U.S. in military Midwestern outposts and spread to numerous states. Europe was affected during the same period. For the most part, the civilian population was spared.  Once the virus mutated and re-emerged in the U.S. in September it was a different story.  Between late August and early January, 22 million lives were lost worldwide.  The U.S. lost 600,000 people, both young and old.  The hardest-hit age group was 20-40 years old.

Just as now, the virus spread across all demographics. Political leaders including the Kings of Spain and Great Britain, The Emperor of Germany and President Wilson suffered from the virus.

In the U.S., health departments closed theaters, churches and places of public assembly for weeks. While at the same time, cities conducted rallies and parades for Liberty Bonds, aiding the spread. Medical professionals were short-handed. At Fort Omaha, buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals to accommodate soldiers stationed there and those coming through Omaha by train.  A variety of measures were attempted to treat and prevent the spread including injections of blood plasma from survivors, concoctions of graham crackers, egg punch and sanitizing drinking fountains with blowtorches. Gauze masks were handed out, telephones were sanitized with alcohol. People were required by law to carry a handkerchief.  Anti-spitting ordinances were in effect along with curfews. Morgues were over-flowing, especially on the East coast.

The Aksarben festival, a week’s worth of activities, went on as scheduled.  The first Omaha death attributed to the flu was October 3rd. The 35-year-old pastor of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Siefke S. deFreeze lost his life. Many died within 48 hours of contracting the virus.

On October 3rd, Omaha’s Health Commissioner, Dr.  Ernest T. Manning, issued the following precautions:

  1. Avoid crowded streetcars, rooms, etc.
  2. Gargle the throat and spray the nasal tract with a normal salt solution
  3. Keep the bowels free.
  4. Keep a state of high individual resistance by hygienic living
  5. Some physicians recommend inoculations with the grippe vaccine

On October 4th schools, churches, theaters, dances lodge and labor meetings and Red Cross workshops were closed.  Streetcars were required to leave their windows open. Quarantine was issued at Fort Omaha. There were no reported cases at the Fort on October 4th by the end of the day on the 5th, there were 200.  The Fort hospital added curtains between the beds to prevent spread. Medical personnel was required to wear white caps, gowns and gauze face masks.

Dr. Manning assured people that it was fine to attend all outdoor events.  The Red Cross asked the public to sew 1,000 face masks.  The Visiting Nurses Association made an urgent plea for all women, regardless of medical training, to help assist with the number of flu patients.

By October 7th, Omaha had over 2,000 cases of influenza reported. VNA made nearly 12,000 visits to sick Douglas County residents. The spreading continued.   Nearly 1,200 workers from packing plants had the virus. Without a clear understanding of how the virus was spread and no effective treatment, efforts to contain the disease were seriously crippled. By mid-month City officials made a public announcement that restrictions could be lifted within a week.  Instead by October 17th, there were 9,500 cases in Nebraska with 5,000 of them in Omaha. Finally, by October 21, the state issued closures of schools, theaters, movies, and public gatherings both indoors and outdoors.  It even canceled Nebraska versus Notre Dame football game!

Omaha defined public gatherings as 12 or more people.  Attendance at funerals was limited to relatives and all businesses had to close by 4:30. The county and federal courthouses were shut down.  Complaints poured into the health department reporting people who were not in compliance with the restrictions.

There was a discussion of whether whiskey aided in the recovery of the disease. Despite Nebraska’s prohibition law, 500 gallons of whiskey were turned in at hospitals to treat patients.

Dr. Manning formed a joint research committee with UNMC and Creighton University.

On Friday, November 1st the restrictions in Omaha were lifted. Douglas County lost 442 residents to the pandemic.  Some of the changes affecting residents after the pandemic were; dropping the practice of drinking out of a common communion glass, theaters were fumigated and guests were encouraged to occupy every other row in the theater, vaudeville acts were forbidden to make fun of the flu, streetcar companies were encouraged to not overcrowd the streetcars.

Fort Omaha lifted its month-long quarantine on November 2, recording 47 deaths. Some cases continued into November.  On December 20 the State Board of Health declared influenza a quarantinable disease. Every household containing one or more flu patients was placed under strict quarantine and no member of the family was allowed to leave or enter the house. In Omaha, blue quarantine cards were printed and tacked on those homes that contained flu patients.  Approximately 1,000 houses were ”closed”. The penalty for violation ranged from $15 to $100 and physicians were required to report all new cases.  The restriction applied until four days after the patient’s fever subsided.  Dr. Manning was not in favor of the state’s guidelines. Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce made a formal protest to Nebraska’s State Board of Health. They contended that if the order were allowed to continue, businesses would become seriously demoralized, and firms would go bankrupt.  The general order by the state was lifted on December 30th.

The spring brought a third wave of the disease, which was not as severe.

Please share your stories of how this pandemic is affecting your life.  Together we can paint a realistic picture of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and its effect on Douglas County.

Kathy Aultz


Help us create a record of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic by sharing your photos and stories with the Douglas County historical Society. You can share your photos in our community folder here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1rFgwJuWZLhS_BXsyZN_H87PLLXBCw8Zh?usp=sharing.

You can also share your stories on our website or contact us to schedule an interview:


Close filters
Products Search
Products Price Filter