Leesha Faulkner


By now, you’ve likely seen the famous photograph of Tupelo native son Elvis Presley, arm raised and big grin, as he took a hypodermic in the arm from Harold Fuerst, the New York City Assistant Commissioner of Health, as Fuerst’s boss, Commissioner Leona Baumgartner, looked on.

That day – Oct. 28, 1956 – stood as a deliberate way to manipulate teenagers in the United States to take the Salk Polio Vaccine. Scheduled to perform on the “Ed Sullivan Show” just minutes later, Elvis took the vaccine in a highly publicized press conference to instill confidence in the vaccine.

A little more than three years prior, Jonas Salk had announced on CBS Radio that he had tested a vaccine against polio. This came after 1952 when 58,000 new cases had been reported in the U.S. and 3,000 people had died.

Polio attacks the nervous system and causes paralysis in different levels of severity. A virus, it is easily transmittable, and in the late 19th and through the 20th century deemed epidemic in the nation.

The first U.S. epidemic was in Vermont in 1894. And, the virus was no respecter of persons. In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted the virus and was left partially paralyzed.

Salk’s journey to finding a vaccine began during the 1930s when he was a medical student at New York University. During World War II he helped develop a flu vaccine, but it wasn’t until 1948, while head of the research laboratory at the University of Pittsburg, that he received a grant to study the polio virus.

In 1950, the lab announced an early version of the vaccine. By 1954, 2 million school students in the U.S. were made part of a clinical trial to test the vaccine, and in 1955, the vaccine was declared “safe.”

But Salk’s miracle shot suffered a setback when a defective vaccine made it out of Cutter Laboratories in Berkley, Calif. More than 200,000 people across the country received the shot. Some died. Many were paralyzed because they contracted polio. Faith in Salk’s vaccine waned.

That’s where Elvis came in. After that famous photograph – and a boost for the March of Dimes from an Elvis voiceover – vaccination rates soared to 80%.

“It’s OK,” Elvis said in the advertisement. “I’m doing it.”

The group most affected by Elvis’ message rested in those teenagers, who just didn’t see the need before.

Here we are, sitting in 2021, with vaccines surrounding us in Mississippi. The high-risk group has pretty much taken theirs. Yet, we lag. Even here in Lee County, where as of Wednesday, only 26% of our population is fully vaccinated, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

Health officials have said the rate has dropped 25% of those taking the vaccine. Likely, one physician said, because of the temporary pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of issues related to blood clots in a relatively small number of women versus the number of people who received the single-shot vaccine.

Now, teenagers, 12-15, may take the Pfizer two-shot vaccine. So, where’s our Elvis right now?

LEESHA FAULKNER is curator of the Oren Dunn City Museum. You may reach her at leesha.faulkner@tupeloms.gov.

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