Sunday

Feb. 23, 2014

The Bagel

by David Ignatow

I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as if it were a portent.
Faster and faster it rolled,
with me running after it
bent low, gritting my teeth,
and I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.

"The Bagel" by David Ignatow from Against the Evidence. © Wesleyan University Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of composer George Handel, who wrote the great oratorio Messiah, born in Halle, Germany (1685). His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, not a musician, so as a child he waited till his father went to sleep, then crept up to the attic and secretly practiced his instruments.

A duke who heard Handel, aged seven, play the organ was so impressed that he handed the boy fistfuls of gold coins. Handel's dad repealed the music ban and the boy was able to study with the town's church organist. He was a child prodigy, and his tutor announced when Handel was 11 that it was time to turn professional. So he went to Berlin.

In 1741, he was asked to do a benefit in Dublin. He decided to write a new oratorio for the performance, and he worked on it zealously, often neglecting to eat or sleep. In 25 days, he'd created the score for the Messiah, which was composed of 50 separate pieces. When he was finished he said, "I think God has visited me."

It's the birthday of W.E.B Du Bois (books by this author), born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (1868). His town was virtually all white. But he didn't really notice racial discrimination — he said that he was only aware of it when people visited from out of town. He was smart; he went to Fisk University in Nashville and then to Harvard, where he was the first African-American to get a Ph.D. He taught sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and he carried out the first serious sociological study of African-Americans, which showed that poverty and crime in black communities were a result of racial barriers in education and employment. In 1909, he founded NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It's the birthday of the diarist Samuel Pepys (books by this author), born in London in 1633. Thanks to Pepys and his diaries, we have a fairly clear picture of 17th-century Restoration England; without his observations and accounts, historians would have had to rely on the single, government-run newspaper operating in London at that time, and that paper was subject to censorship. Pepys wrote about the plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the coronation of Charles II. He recorded more mundane matters as well: his eating habits, toilet habits, intimate relationships with his wife and several other women, and social events that he had attended.

It was on this day in 1954 that the first mass inoculation of children for polio began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Polio was first described in the 18th century, but it wasn't identified until 1909. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, regular polio outbreaks terrified Americans — polio was highly contagious and mostly affected children. In 1921, the disease struck 39-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His wife, Eleanor, said, "Probably the thing that took most courage in his life was his mastery and his meeting of polio." Roosevelt's money and fame transformed the fight against polio. He created a foundation called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became the March of Dimes. He convinced his good friend and law partner, Basil O'Connor, to run the foundation. Throughout the war years, the March of Dimes gained public support with Roosevelt as its public image, Hollywood celebrities and war generals promoting it, grassroots chapters, and a simple fundraising platform: a dime at a time.

The March of Dimes devoted a lot of its budget to research. Researchers had been hard at work on a "live" version of the vaccine — using the living virus, but weakening it so much in a lab that it wouldn't cause disease. But live vaccines were hard to stabilize, and progress was slow. March of Dimes director Basil O'Connor was interested in another approach — a "killed" vaccine, in which the virus was inactivated with heat, chemicals, or radiation before being made into a vaccine. A killed vaccine would be less potent and require booster shots, but it was easier to stabilize, didn't require refrigeration, and was safer because there was no danger that it might revert back to the original virus. Most promising, there had been a successful killed vaccine for influenza during World War II. O'Connor talked to the doctor who had pioneered the influenza vaccine, and that doctor suggested young Dr. Salk as a good candidate to work on a polio vaccine. So the March of Dimes recruited Salk.

Meanwhile, the polio epidemic was growing worse. Various attempts at controlling the disease were not working, including quarantining children or putting them in metal respirator tunnels called iron lungs. The worst outbreak in America's history hit in 1952, with 58,000 cases reported; more than 3,000 people died and more than 21,000 were left with some degree of paralysis. Schools closed, the public grew desperate, and pressure on scientists increased. That same year, Salk announced that he had discovered an effective vaccine but that he needed to test it on a large scale. So he set up a field trial involving more than 220,000 volunteers, 20,000 physicians, and 1.8 million schoolchildren. On this day in 1954, the first group of children were vaccinated, 137 students at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh. Dr. Salk gave each vaccination personally in a makeshift lab set up in the gymnasium.

On April 12, 1955, the monitors of the test held a press conference and made an official announcement: the vaccine was safe and effective. The announcement was a huge national event. Stores broadcast the event on loudspeakers, and judges even stopped trials in the middle so that everyone could listen. After they heard the news, churches across the country rang their bells, factories took a break for a moment of silence, and spontaneous celebrations broke out all over the country. It was 10 years to the day after the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

When asked whether he had applied for a patent for the vaccine, Salk replied: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Salk has been praised for this selfless approach, and it may have been his personal belief, but also the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had already looked into applying for a patent and determined that it would not qualify.

Salk said: "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

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