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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Polio Crusade

Airs Monday, April 12, 2010 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Nurse and child with polio. This program is the story of the largest public health experiment in American history — the effort to eradicate polio, one of the 20th-century’s most dreaded diseases.

It was the largest public health experiment in American history - a crusade that eradicated polio, one of the 20th century's most dreaded diseases. The polio epidemic terrified Americans for decades, affecting thousands of children, leaving many crippled, paralyzed or condemned to life in an iron lung.

Photo Gallery

In the mid-twentieth century, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (predecessor to today's March of Dimes) pioneered a new approach to philanthropy, raising money a dime at a time from millions of small donors. The nonprofit enlisted poster children, celebrities, presidents, and other partners in their high-profile campaigns. View the photos.

But on April 26, 1954, hope emerged. At the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, six-year-old Randy Kerr stood at the head of a long line of children and waited patiently while a nurse gently rolled up his sleeve, then filled a syringe with a cherry-colored liquid containing the world's first polio vaccine.

Developed just a few years earlier by virologist Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine had not yet been widely tested on humans. No one was certain it was safe or whether it could provide effective protection against the disease. In the coming weeks, nearly two million school children in 44 states received the shots. The Salk vaccine trials were the dramatic culmination of years of research and a multi-million dollar investment, made up in large part by public donations.

Based in part on David Oshinsky's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Polio: An American Story," "The Polio Crusade" chronicles a decades-long crusade, fueled by the bold leadership of a single philanthropy and its innovative public relations campaign, and features a bitter battle between two scientists and the breakthrough of a now-forgotten woman researcher.

The entire film is now available for online viewing, and you can watch a preview below.

The Polio Crusade Preview

The story of the polio crusade pays tribute to a time when Americans banded together to conquer a terrible disease. The medical breakthrough saved countless lives and had a pervasive impact on American philanthropy that continues to be felt today.