Many diseases have motivated MSSC to community action over the past 120 years, from tuberculosis to smallpox to diphtheria to COVID-19. But no effort was bigger than the one targeting polio, the highly contagious virus capable of causing paralysis.
In June 1955, a year after a testing trial involving area second-graders, 110 MSSC members and 220 nurses volunteered to administer the Salk polio vaccine to 25,000 area children from public and parochial schools.
“Most of the city’s youngsters walked right up to the needle, turned their heads from the doctor, gritted their teeth and got the job over with,” the Wichita Beacon reported.
Then in late 1962 and early 1963, MSSC organized the campaign that immunized nearly 250,000 area residents with the three-dose Sabin vaccine. It took more than 2,000 volunteers working on three Sunday afternoons at 60 sites.
Called STOP, for Sedgwick County’s Triumph Over Polio, the drive mobilized police and sheriff’s personnel as well as planes to deliver the vaccine to nearly 80% of the county’s population. Another 12,000 residents had received the Sabin vaccine from their family physician earlier in 1962.
“This is not a handout from the Washington boys. This is the county at work as it should work,” said MSSC President Dr. George Gsell in 1962 ñ citing the local campaign to counter those who would socialize medicine.
As each child and adult lined up to receive the Sabin serum on a sugar cube, organizers asked for a 25-cent donation. About $93,000 was collected, paying for the vaccine vials and leaving $25,000 to fund science scholarships at then-University of Wichita.
“By swallowing a cube of sugar, a Sedgwick County resident will contribute his individual part to the mosaic of total immunity necessary for the health of the county, and he may save his own life, or his child’s or his grandchild’s,” Dr. G. Gayle Stephens, MSSC’s STOP chairman, said before the first 1962 clinic.
The numbers of polio cases in Sedgwick County proved the value of vaccination: 266 in 1952, 28 in 1956, 42 in 1959, four in 1961, then none.
By 1970, as the community launched a rubella vaccination drive, pediatrician and future MSSC President Dr. Katherine Pennington could call polio a “forgotten” disease.