By Philip R. Devlin
(August 22, 2022) —Recent news reports out of New York City indicate that the dreaded polio virus has been making a comeback. These studies are based upon sewage studies in Middletown that were pioneered in the 1950’s by Wesleyan grad Joseph Melnick.
Most often, people associate a Hall of Fame with athletic achievement. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, are perhaps the two most widely known halls of fame in the world; nevertheless, there are halls of fame for other notable achievements. Among those other achievements is a hall of fame established in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1958 called the Polio Hall Of Fame.
Warm Springs, Georgia, of course, is a most appropriate location for the Polio Hall of Fame, as it is most readily associated with polio’s most famous victim: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was in Warm Springs that FDR sought hydrotherapy for his paralyzing condition, and it was there that he died in April of 1945.
There are 17 bronze busts there placed in an irregular linear fashion against a wall; 15 of these busts represent doctors or medical scientists; 16 of them are men; 4 are Europeans. Of the 13 Americans represented there, no state has more inductees than Connecticut.
One of those Connecticut inductees is Dr. John R. Paul. John Rodman Paul was born on April 18, 1893, in Philadelphia. His early education occurred in the Mid-Atlantic area; he received an undergraduate degree from Princeton and then an M.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1920. Dr. Paul began his long association with Connecticut when he joined the Yale School of Medicine in 1928. At Yale, he began a polio study group in the 1930’s. He and his associates began to receive yearly study grants from the March of Dimes immediately after FDR founded that group in 1938.
Dr. Paul used the grant money to study the spread of polio in Connecticut, in the neighborhoods of both Middletown and New Haven. His group found that infected patients excreted the disease into sewage systems. An historian of the disease, Paul noted that for many centuries, children received antibodies from their mother’s milk at an early age and that early-age exposure had conferred immunity upon children; however, as civilization progressed with better sanitation, cleaner water, better hygiene, etc., children were no longer exposed to the virus at an early age and therefore lacked immunity to it. Dr. John R. Paul retired from Yale after 33 years there in 1961. A longtime resident of Guilford, he died on May 6, 1971.
A disciple of Dr. Paul was Joseph L. Melnick (photo above). Born in 1914 in Boston, Melnick’s family moved to New Haven when he was just 7. After graduating High School in 1932, Melnick attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, graduating from there in 1936. He then pursued a Ph.D. at Yale and was named a professor of epidemiology there in 1954. He assisted Dr. John Paul in his studies of polio and then proceeded to advance the study of that virus on his own. It’s interesting to note that much of the data gathered in Melnick’s studies came from the two cities that were most familiar to him: New Haven and Middletown.
Melnick found that the polio virus multiplied more rapidly in sewage during warm weather, thereby verifying that outbreaks of polio during warmer weather was not a coincidence. He also noted that fecal contamination of the hands was a means by which the virus could be spread. His discoveries led to better waste disposal methods as well as better hygienic practices to contain the spread of the polio virus. Furthermore, Melnick found that the polio vaccine could be stored for a longer period of time by using magnesium chloride as a preservative. He began a longtime association with Baylor University in 1968. After a long and productive life, Joseph Melnick died in Houston on January 7, 2001 at age 88.
Perhaps the most interesting Connecticut member of the Polio Hall of Fame is Dr. John Franklin Enders–a lifelong resident of Connecticut. Born in West Hartford in 1897, Enders attended Yale for a while before joining the Army Air Corps and fighting in World War I. Enders was one of many aviators from Yale who volunteered for service in the war, including his classmate, Robert Lovett–Harry Truman’s future Secretary of Defense. Following the war, Enders returned to Yale to finish his undergraduate degree. He then tried several careers before deciding to pursue a career in infectious diseases. To that end, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1930.
Dr. Enders teamed with Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins to do research on the polio virus. The trio received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1954 for their outstanding work in discovering the ability of the polio virus to grow in “cultures of various types of tissue.” Dr. Jonas Salk built upon their research to create the first vaccine against polio shortly thereafter. Salk’s failure to credit the help he received from other researchers in developing his vaccine became controversial. By contrast, when Enders successfully developed a measles vaccine in the early 1960’s, he went out of his way to credit the help of others who had assisted him. A resident of Waterford later in his life, Dr. John F. Enders, war hero and Nobel Prize winner, died on September 8, 1985 at age 88.
During the early 1950’s, fear of contracting polio was exceeded only by fear of a nuclear attack, according to a PBS documentary on polio in 2009. The worst outbreak of polio in history occurred in 1952, with more than 52,000 Americans contracting the disease. Shortly thereafter, however, the Salk vaccine was developed followed by the Sabin vaccine. Soon, the once-feared poliomyelitis was no longer a major concern for most people in the world, in large part due to the pioneering research and work by three men with strong Connecticut connections–John Paul, Joseph Melnick and John Enders–all worthy members of the Polio Hall Of Fame in Warm Springs, Georgia!