Mass Inoculation or: How New York Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Polio Vaccine

Boy with post-vaccine lollipop reward poses with doctor, 1955. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Mothers and small "Polio Children" board bus, Bellevue Hospital, ca. 1916. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

As each summer rolled around during the first half of the 20th century, parents, children and health officials dreaded outbreaks of poliomyelitis, commonly called polio. This was especially true in New York City, where people lived in such close proximity to each other. The polio virus is spread by person-to-person contact, is extremely contagious and can affect the spinal cord and brain. In many cases it causes paralysis and can be fatal. Polio was often referred to as “infantile paralysis,” because it was especially prevalent in children, though people of all ages could contract the disease.

The city’s first major polio epidemic struck in 1916, killing nearly 2,500 people. Almost 9,000 cases were reported in total that year. Smaller outbreaks were reported over the next few decades with two occurrences in the 1940s, continuing to terrify the populace. On average, over 800 cases and 40 deaths were reported yearly.

Girl gets injection as part of National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis vaccine testing, undated. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Doctors were soon developing and experimenting with preventive treatments including gamma globulin, an injectable solution made with the polio antibodies. Gamma globulin was introduced to the public in 1950 and showed some effectiveness in preventing the disease. Because the solution was made from blood, supply was limited and could not be a long-term remedy. Parents’ desperation to protect their children coupled with the restricted availability of the treatment led to sit-ins and protests demanding more access to gamma globulin from the Department of Health.

Department of Health mailer from 1954 explaining the vaccine testing. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly confirming Commissioner Baumgartner’s order for 500,000 units of the polio vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the early 1950s a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh looked promising. The vaccine was created with an inactivated polio virus. In 1954, New York City Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner sought the city’s inclusion in the first nationwide testing of the Salk vaccine. The testing effort was coordinated by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later renamed The March of Dimes) and Department of Health staff, and carried out locally by thousands of volunteers.

One of many mailings sent to the Department of Health by citizens skeptical of the safety of the new vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The NYC Department of Health selected six health districts for the first round of testing based on risk: Corona, Flushing, Gravesend, Lower East Side, Richmond and Tremont. Beginning on April 27, 1954, 40,000 school children in grades 1-3 were injected with either the vaccine or a control substance. The testing effort was coupled with a massive publicity campaign including television, radio, posters, pamphlets and film trailers. The success of the vaccine would not be assessed until the following polio season and there was some fear and skepticism about its safety and efficacy. During the first phase of testing, popular columnist Walter Winchell claimed on television, radio and in print that the vaccine “may be a killer,” incorrectly reporting the vaccine contained a live virus. Federal officials worked immediately to dispel Winchell’s claims and ensure the safety of the vaccine.

In April 1955 the Salk vaccine was declared successful and the New York City Department of Health under Commissioner Baumgartner began a systematic program to inoculate school children right away. In the first year 899,010 New York City residents were given the vaccine. By 1956, 45% of New Yorkers under age 20 were inoculated.

Elvis Presley receiving a polio shot in October 1956 from Assistant Commissioner Dr. Harold Fuerst. Commissioner Baumgartner holds Presley’s arm while Fuerst administers the vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Dr. Leona Baumgartner, Commissioner of Health, to Elvis Presley, 1956. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Department of Health even enlisted Elvis Presley to help make the case for young people to get vaccinated. In October 1956, Presley was photographed, filmed and interviewed while he received the shot on a trip to New York. Commissioner Baumgartner can be seen holding Presley’s arm, while Assistant Commissioner Dr. Harold Fuerst administered the shot.

The widespread inoculation was absolutely necessary to stamp out polio in New York City but the project was often hindered due to its high cost. The publicity, staffing of health centers, vaccinations, and numerous other expenses strained the city budget. Not until the passing of the Federal Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962 was the city able to fully realize the large scale inoculation of the public. The Act provided grant funds to distribute polio and other vaccinations to children five and under, free of charge. Once flexible funds were available, a total of 3,624,670 doses were distributed in New York City in 1963 alone.

Explanatory chart depicting the success of Salk vaccine in preventing new cases of polio. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Department staff and volunteers outside mobile vaccine station on 84th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 1961. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Graph depicting reported polio cases in New York City from 1951 to 1963. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In September 1963, Health Commissioner George James announced that not one polio case was reported and/or confirmed in the previous year it for the first time in New York City’s recorded history. However exciting the news of a polio-free year was, the statement was not accepted without scrutiny. There was a great deal of suspicion that the polio vaccine could very well infect a person with the disease it was meant to repel. In 1963, seven unconfirmed cases of polio were reported to the Health Department, but their legitimacy was never determined. In one case, a man contracted serious polio symptoms immediately after inoculation. He was tested for polio but the initial results were reportedly lost by the hospital and/or physician, raising concern in some quarters about the safety of the vaccine. Regardless of the unconfirmed polio cases, Commissioner James continued to claim that 1963 was a year free of polio.

Number of polo cases in New York City from 1954 to 1963, from Vital Statistics, Department of Health, NYC Municipal Library.

Even if the vaccination may have caused a handful of polio infections, it quickly proved its worth. After initiating the widespread polio inoculation the contraction rate drastically fell. Between 1955 and 1962, only 577 cases and 42 deaths were reported in New York City. On a yearly basis, the death count fell by 91% and the number of reported cases fell by 87%.

These results proved the vaccine effective and even presented the possibility of total eradication. Nevertheless, George James remained vigilant. Leery of complacency, he warned the public and private health sector of a possible reemergence.

Cover of Spanish-language informational pamphlet about the polio vaccine from 1959. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The next few years were largely polio free except for a few cases in 1964. Even as polio outbreaks faded from memory, the city and state continued to strengthen the offense against polio. In 1965, the New York State Legislature passed a bill which required any child to receive a polio vaccination before attending public school. During the first years of vaccination, children and young people were the primary recipients, but as the years progressed, more and more adults received the vaccine as well. The city’s defense against polio grew stronger and stronger.

With the help of the government and private health sectors of New York and the United States, the massive polio inoculation was predominately a success. Polio contraction rates plummeted in a surprisingly short amount of time, saving hundreds of lives and eradicating a major health scourge of the 20th century. The distribution and promotion of the polio vaccine in New York City served as a model for many states and cities in their battle against the devastating disease which is poliomyelitis.

Polio display, Jamaica Health Center, August 31, 1955. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Omnibuses and Horse Cars or What I Have Learned from Assisting Researchers

deg_22: Pier 42, French Line at Horatio and Jane Streets, c. 1880. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It always starts with “Hello. How can we help you?” A simple phrase that begins a relationship between two strangers—the researcher and the archivist/librarian. I provide assistance and guidance to DORIS’ collections. This doesn’t mean that I perform the patrons’ research for them. Sometimes I simply retrieve the requested records or book. More often, I have to dig a bit deeper into our collection guides and catalog to help patrons. It’s those occasions that I find the most interesting and when I learn the most.

Omnibus Advertisement, August 7, 1852, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

One of our long-term researchers, I’ll call him Mr. F., began researching in the library over two years ago. Frequently here two to three times a week, he is not an academic, student or author. Rather, he has a life-long interest in New York City surface transit. Having traversed the City on buses since childhood, his goal is to correct some of the information that is available in books and online. It is from him that I learned about omnibuses and horse-cars and other modes of transportation.

When I met him in August of last year he thought he had exhausted all that the library had to offer, although he still had unanswered questions. The more he talked, the more I learned. I introduced him to the mayoral records in the Archives. The first time he found an archival document related to his quest—a letter in Mayor LaGuardia’s papers—he was giddy with excitement. He was hooked and so was I.

By now you’re probably asking “But what are these different modes of conveyances: horse-car, omnibus? Didn’t everyone just ride horses and in carriages and wagons?” Not really.

deg_29: Broadway, with horse-drawn rail cars at right, looking northwest from 22nd Street, ca. 1880. Photo by Robert J. Delvin, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In colonial New York most people lived and worked in the same location. As the City prospered, wealthier families moved northward, away from the crowded lower Manhattan business district. Thus was born the “commuter” who required public transportation.

The stagecoach was the first scheduled mode of public transportation. Soon thereafter, the Common Council imposed regulations: where stages could stand awaiting passengers, the speed of the coaches, where they stopped, and the right-of-way. Coach owners had to be licensed, and drivers were required to be over 21 and obtain a permit from the Mayor. A listing of stage coach owners in the 1800s, and some permits can be found in the Archives collection.

Petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Signatures from the petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Stagecoaches traveled between New York and Albany, Boston and Philadelphia as early as 1789. Fraunces’ Tavern was used as the stage-office. By 1811, there were five daily scheduled stagecoach trips between lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, then the northernmost reach of the City. In 1816, Asa Hall’s line started at the corner of Pine Street and Broadway, near Trinity Church. The fare was 1 shilling. In January 1829 the Common Council fined the “Omnibus Men” Asa Hall, Kip & Brown, and James Dickenson $25 (over $600 today) for parking their stages illegally and blocking street and pedestrian traffic. Imagine a $600 parking fine! They petitioned the Council to cancel the fine. They lost their appeal but the text of the petitions are telling, acknowledging that they did in fact violate “a law passed 18th of June 1828 regulating the standing in waiting for passengers.” Asa Hall owned the oldest stage line. In his petition he states that it was a burden he could ill afford and that Kipp & Brown should bear the greater burden of the fine because they had more stages then he and James Dickenson. Additionally, they all stated that they could not manage what the drivers were doing when they were not around. In later years, Sol Kipp, of Kip & Brown, would lament the coming of the horse-drawn rail car and the construction of the Eighth Avenue Line to which he lost his right of way.

In 1832, the New York and Harlem Railroad was created to bring passengers from Prince Street (today’s SoHo) to Harlem, mostly along 4th Avenue. The cars were built in John Stephenson shop on 28th Street and horses pulled the cars along tracks. The era of horse-cars, and omnibuses (an oversized stagecoach sometimes called a horse-bus) had begun.

deg_42: Yorkville and Harlem stages in front of City Hall Post Office, Broadway and Park Row, ca. 1880.  Photo by A. Simpson, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Omnibuses were painted with the name of their route on the outside and accommodated about twelve passengers. Some were heated and some were not. People often describe the rides as slow and uncomfortable, being “jostled about the car.” A poem by Punch published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1852 entitled “Children must be paid for” [sic] describes, in the second verse, travel during the summer:

“If in an omnibus we ride,
It is n (sic) beauteous sight to see,
When full the vehicle inside,
Age taking childhood on its knee.
But in the dog-days’ scorching heat,
When a slight breath of air is pray’d for,
Half suffocated in our seat,
We feel that “Children must be paid for”

Omnibus travel in Brooklyn began in the 1840s, facilitating travel between Manhattan, Flushing, Jamaica and points east. They connected ferries docking in Brooklyn to the Long Island Railroad and the Jamaica Brooklyn Railroad. In 1853 the Brooklyn City Railroad began horse-car service that ran from the Fulton Ferry Terminal along Fulton Street and Fulton Avenue, a distance of 3.43 miles. Horses and mules pulled the cars along the double-track and took 37 minutes to travel one-way.

deg_21: Pier 44, White Star Line, Christopher Street "Entrance for Teams," ca. 1880. Photo by W.T. Colbron, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Transportation in New York was segregated and the omnibus, horse-car and railroads were no exception. African-Americans were prohibited from riding on some omnibus lines or were restricted to specially marked cars or the outside of the car. Sometimes the decision to allow an African American on board was left to the driver and the conductor. On the Sixth Avenue lines, every sixth car was marked with a sign “Colored Persons allowed to ride in this car.” In Brooklyn, Montgomery Queen, the owner of a line that went from the ferry to Bedford had a strict rule not to let “darkies” ride in his buses. Instances of African American men and women being forcibly removed or assaulted verbally and physically are covered by contemporary newspapers.

In 1855, African American school teacher Elizabeth Jennings boarded a car that lacked a sign prohibiting her use.  She refused to disembark at the request of the conductor. As the omnibus continued along the way, a policeman was hailed. He and the conductor “roughly removed” Miss Jennings. She sued the railroad, won her suit and was awarded damages of $225 plus costs of $22.50. As a result of this case, the Third Avenue Railroad immediately desegregated its service. Full access to transportation for all would not occur until after the Civil War. 

By the end of the 1850s, the Common Council (which covered only Manhattan) had issued over 400 omnibus licenses. As the number of railroad franchises grew and more and more track was laid, horses continued to pull the rail cars.

bps_05824: Stage Line Manhattan Bridge, Eugene de Salignac, photographer, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives

Horse-driven omnibuses and railcars dominated surface transportation until the arrival of steam-driven cars in 1883 and then the electric trolley cars. But the era of the omnibus, or horse-drawn rail car, continued through to the 20th century. In 1899, 113.44 miles of track were still dedicated to horse lines. It was on the Bleecker Street & Fulton Ferry line that the last horse car made its final trip on July 27, 1917. By then the cars were dark, dirty and smoky. New Yorkers had moved on to more modern transportation above ground, and below.

This is not the end of the story of surface transportation in the City. There is a treasure trove of information to be found in the collections. Needless to say, Mr. F. will be here for quite a while longer.

bps_05829: Stage Line, Desbrosses Street Ferry, general view of stages waiting, November 6, 1919. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives.

Take Me Out To the Ballpark

Baseball game, ca. 1939. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When researchers think about Municipal Archives collections, generally the focus is on genealogical records or mayoral papers or 19th-century maps. However, the collections are vast and broad in scope, containing material on a range of surprising non-governmental topics such as food, fashion, music, and even baseball. Yes, the national past-time is well represented in the Municipal Archives.

Topographical Bureau of Queens baseball team, Long Island City, 1910. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Some say that the first organized baseball team was NYC-based—the Knickerbockers of Murray Hill who commenced their season in 1845 with a game in Hoboken. What made them organized is that they wrote down and followed rules for the game. Imagine that! Suffice it to say that baseball emerged in the mid-19th century as a game that could be played without much equipment—perfect for an urban environment. It became immensely popular across most demographics as a sport suitable for professionals as well as legions of amateur players.

Scenes from baseball game, Elks Club Clambake, Midland Park, Grant City, Staten Island, August 1924. NYC Municipal Archives Collection

Today there are two professional teams, the crosstown rivals New York Mets and New York Yankees and their minor league counterparts the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees. But for decades there were three teams: The Giants, the Dodgers and the Yankees. Each boasted of enthusiastic fans and each was based in a unique ballpark.

A football game underway at the first Polo Grounds, Harlem Flats, 157th Street and 8th Avenue, ca. 1880s. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Seating chart for the third Polo Grounds, ca. 1930s. New York City Municipal Archives Collections.

The home of the New York Giants was the famed Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on Coogan’s Bluff separating Washington Heights and Harlem. In a scene unimaginable today, fans could sit on the bluff, looking down on the park, and watch games for free. Originally named the Gothams, the club was formed in 1883 and decamped to San Francisco in 1958 abandoning their storied field. The ballpark was uniquely long and narrow, with a centerfield fence so distant that only the most elite players—Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth—could hit a homerun over it. (Joe Adcock from Milwaukee could too but let’s stay focused on New York). Home to many a major league game, the park also hosted such cross-town rivals as the departmental teams of the FDNY, NYPD and DSNY. Friends and families packed the park to watch the amateur sluggers at play. Mayors attended and sometimes even tossed out the proverbial first pitch.

Police vs. Fire Department baseball game, Polo Grounds, 1940s. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Sanitation Department Baseball Team marches on Lower Broadway on Connie Mack Day, August 19, 1949. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Ebbets Field, ca. 1949. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. 

Across the river, the Brooklyn Dodgers played in Ebbets Field. There are many Dodger stories but the preeminent, of course, is that of the great Jackie Robinson who in 1947 broke the color line in major league baseball at Ebbets Field, after playing in the Dodgers minor league Montreal team in 1946. There had, of course, been black semi-professional baseball players from the beginning, when leagues just were forming. But the black players were banned in 1868 from the National League and it was in Brooklyn where the beginning of the end of those race-based rules occurred.

Sullivan Street Elevation, Brooklyn Base Ball Club [Ebbets Field], Clarence R. Van Buskirk, 1912.

The Dodgers were chased out of NYC by Robert Moses in 1957, devastating their fans, but leaving home plate behind.

Home plate from Ebbets Field, ca. 1957. Brooklyn Borough Presidents Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letters to Mayor Wagner urging him to save the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1957. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

World Series announcement board (Yankees vs. Giants), Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

That of course brings us to the third of the City’s old-time teams, the erstwhile Highlanders renamed the Yankees in 1913. For a dozen years, the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds, sharing the ballpark with the Giants, another occurrence unimaginable today. In 1921 and 1922 the teams played against each other in the World Series, with the Giants prevailing both times. The “old” Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 and the original “subway series” may have been the 1923 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees which the Yankees won for their first-ever world championship. Legendary players donned the pinstripes, none better than the 1927 team frequently characterized as the best baseball team ever assembled. Those exploits are reimagined in the 2016 blog from Doug Alden—The Diary of Myles Thomas—which explores jazz, race, gangsters and New York. 

1936 World Series, singer Kate Smith (front left) and Babe Ruth (center) with his wife Claire Merritt Ruth in special seats in front of grandstand, September 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

Civilian Defense Poster, Pre-Season Championship Double Header Baseball Benefit Games, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The archives collection illustrates the varied uses of the old Yankee Stadium. It was more than a ball park. It was an event space! In 1943 a double-header joined all three of the City’s teams in games to raise money for Civil Defense. There were rallies such as a citywide May Day rally for labor. In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke to thousands of attendees who opposed apartheid in South Africa and then donned a Yankees coat and cap. In 1965 and 1979 two different Pope said mass right around second base, attracting very large crowds of worshipers. But the largest crowd in the stadium’s history was drawn by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1958—123,707 people. Prayer is a tradition that continues in the replacement stadium which, after the September 11th attack, hosted a multi-denomination prayer service, uniting a grieving City.

Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium, June 21, 1990. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope Paul VI, October 4, 1965. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

From the Ground Up: A Survey of the Map Collections of the Municipal Archives

In 1891 the Metropolitan Underground Railway Company presented a grand plan for New York City. They proposed to construct a set of tunnels and tracks that would crisscross Manhattan, connecting the Battery to 155th Street, as well as Jersey City and Brooklyn at an estimated cost of $60,000,000. While elevated lines were already in existence, this new transit system would alleviate traffic, reduce noise, protect service from the elements, and propel New York into the 20th Century. Included in the proposal were plans for an East River Tunnel, drawn up by Chief Engineer Charles M. Jacobs. From Battery Park to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, it would whisk travelers and freight between the boroughs in record time. Alas, the venture never came to fruition, at least, for Charles Jacobs. Instead he would helm the construction of a different kind of East River tunnel: a gas line connecting 71st Street to Ravenswood (now part of Long Island City) that was completed in 1894.

How Can We Help?

On April 5, 2018, at a ceremony hosted by the New York Archival Society in the Rankin Reading Room at the Department of Records and Information Services, Commissioner Pauline Toole read a proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing April 6, 2018, in the City of New York as “Idilio Gracia-Peña Day.” Society President Kevin Foley introduced Mayor David N. Dinkins who graciously acknowledged the decades of service to the City of New York by his friend and appointed Commissioner, Idilio Gracia Peña.

Digitizing Historical Photographs

On April 5, 2018, at a ceremony hosted by the New York Archival Society in the Rankin Reading Room at the Department of Records and Information Services, Commissioner Pauline Toole read a proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing April 6, 2018, in the City of New York as “Idilio Gracia-Peña Day.” Society President Kevin Foley introduced Mayor David N. Dinkins who graciously acknowledged the decades of service to the City of New York by his friend and appointed Commissioner, Idilio Gracia Peña.