What we can learn from the year an epidemic upstaged Joe DiMaggio

The frantic search for a vaccine to prevent a disease that has stricken the country is the biggest story of the year, according to Michael Flamm. A history professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, Flamm isn’t talking about 2020, but 1954. That’s when thousands of parents turned their children into human guinea pigs in an attempt to defeat the debilitating illness known as polio.

“It was the biggest public health experiment in history,” Flamm says from his home in Bexley.

The battle against polio is just one of the events Flamm recalls in “How 1954 Changed History,” an audio series he wrote and narrated for Amazon’s Audible Originals service. Over the course of 10 half-hour lectures, he talks about key political developments such as Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s ruthless campaign to root out alleged communists in government and society. He also looks at culturally significant developments, including Elvis Presley’s recording debut and the birth of rock ’n’ roll.

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But for those who were alive in 1954, no story was more important than the effort to conquer polio, a disease that mainly afflicted children and sometimes killed them or left them permanently paralyzed. Up until then, the only way to fight it was to close schools and keep youngsters at home—in other words, to practice what we now call social distancing. So when volunteers were needed to test Dr. Jonas Salk’s new and unproven vaccine, thousands of parents allowed their children to take part, resulting in the quick confirmation of its effectiveness. “It was an extraordinary act of collective responsibility,” Flamm says.

His series begins with a decidedly less momentous event: the January 1954 marriage of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and movie star Marilyn Monroe. Though it had little effect on society as a whole, Flamm uses it to introduce the growing celebrity status of professional athletes. His first lecture notes that the trend was aided by new technologies such as television and jet travel—which made rivalries between far-flung teams possible—and promoted by a colorful new magazine called Sports Illustrated.

How did the audio series come about? Flamm explains that Audible pitched the general idea of a history series, and he suggested homing in on one of several noteworthy years. Audible settled on 1954, he believes, “because it’s a year that not only offers clearly historic events in the political world but also major developments in social and cultural aspects of modern America.”

Some of those events and developments have parallels to 2020. For example, Flamm believes McCarthy’s vicious red-baiting attacks, which “spread innuendos and lies in order to advance his ambitions,” were all too similar to tactics common in the current political climate.

Even more notable is the parallel between 1954’s crusade against polio and 2020’s efforts to control Covid-19. But the comparison is not perfect, Flamm cautions, as some contemporary Americans lack their forebears’ faith in government and science and are less eager to sacrifice for the sake of others, even when threatened by a common enemy such as a health crisis.

“In the 1950s, there was a sense of collective responsibility,” Flamm says. “This was a generation that had survived the Great Depression and World War II. They understood that everyone had to face the crisis together.”

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