NISKAYUNA, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Amid another major vaccine rollout, two local brothers remember where they were in 1955. Back then, polio—like COVID—was a dramatic disease, but with one major difference: it mostly affected kids.
In 1955, a gallon of gas cost .29 cents, “Rock Around the Clock” was the big hit on the radio, and 9-year-old Marty Strosberg was in class, at school 16 in Troy. It’s a year he remembers with a dose of nostalgia. “I was in the third grade. There were 30 kids from the class, we went out in the hallway,” Marty Strosberg recalled. “No parents, no lollipops, big needles.”
Polio was paralyzing kids. Marty recollected, “The most horrific image in people’s minds was the iron lung.”
But a new vaccine had emerged, discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk. In Schenectady, the virus was so widespread at one point, the county had been chosen to participate in the experimental vaccine trials and Sunnyview was treating mostly children. “There was a doctor and a nurse,” Strosberg said. “Before you knew it, it was over. We went back to class.”
By the time the vaccine had made it into Marty’s arm, it was injecting hope into the community. “Church bells were ringing,” Marty said. “People were lining up to get this.” It wasn’t until 1965—10 years after Marty’s shot—that New York mandated children get vaccinated against polio to attend public school.
When the vaccine rolled out in Schenectady, Jay Street was jam-packed, and schools became central in the effort. Marty’s older brother, Jim, chronicled the contagion and has reviewed every local article from the era. “Every edition has an article, every day there was something about polio,” Jim explained.
Including April 13, 1955, when the vaccine arrived in Albany. Jim recalled the story: “It was flown up at night time by colonial airlines and met by a police guard at the Albany Airport. The vaccine was taken to General Electric. They put it in the cafeteria in the coolers to keep it cool overnight.”
One article, in particular, has a personal attachment for the Strosberg brothers. Jim showed NEWS10 a picture of his father administering the polio vaccine. Though, as evidenced by the grimace on the young girl’s face in the photo, not everyone was always happy about it. “Yeah, there were definitely bumps in the road,” he said.
Dr. Gus Birkhead, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UAlbany, highlighted some of what didn’t work well with the polio vaccine rollout. Most notably, a botched batch of the vaccine resulted in the deaths of 10 kids in what became widely known as the Cutter Incident. “Really the vaccine program picked right up and kept going,” Birkhead said. “If it happened today, I can only imagine what would have happened.”
Despite the deadly setback, by the ’60s, cases of polio had plummeted, with less than 100 cases across the country. According to Birkhead, “One of the differences—this vaccine was not developed with government money, or by the pharmaceutical industry. It was developed by a small foundation.”
That foundation? The March of Dimes. “Half of the money that Schenectady raised through the March of Dimes went for research, and half went to pay the hospital bills,” Jim said.
With Marty’s help, Jim—who became a doctor himself—recorded their retrospective research in their book, “Schenectady’s Battle Against Contagious Disease.” The book also includes extensive research on influenza, smallpox, and COVID.
“I learned a couple of things,” Jim said. “The most important thing was how important individuals were and how important leadership was.”
At age 74, Marty is now the prime target of a different disease. “When COVID came on the scene in March of 2020, I was scared to death,” Marty remembered. But he remembers something else, too, a newer memory: More than 60 years after getting the polio vaccine, Marty got his first COVID shot, thus turning another page in history.
“That was a very big day,” Marty said. “Very momentous day. Felt like we could turn the corner.”