A temporary tribute to Albert Sabin

Thursday, July 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Albert Sabin
If you're about my age, you can remember polio. You can remember your mom saying you couldn't swim because you might get a chill. Doctors wouldn't take your tonsils out during polio season, between May and October. Kids in clunky metal and leather leg braces. Maybe you even remember an iron lung.

That was the worst. These huge metal tubes were a peculiar sickly green with portholes in the sides and a mirror over the victim's face. The machine made an unmistakable rhythmic and chilling whoosh.

A small tribute

It's easy to forget that there are still 30,000 who survived my generation's most dreaded childhood disease. Most of them have thrown away the braces and learned to use weakened hands and arms.

WLW's Jim Scott had polio when he was 12. "I remember my left arm feeling funny, tingly." That was the beginning of months of rehabilitation and an arm that still is partially disabled. He was sitting on his bed in a clinic in upstate New York when he heard that a vaccine had been discovered.

He met Dr. Sabin in 1987 at the dedication of the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center. "It really was a sweet moment. He took hold of my left hand that, of course, I thought was so unusual, so unique. And I realized that he had seen thousands of hands like mine."

We love to brag that the man who saved billions of lives around the world belongs to us. He developed the polio vaccine in the early 1950s while doing research for the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Since 1977, there has been a park named for him, a tiny patch of green with a couple of benches on Third Street between Plum and Elm streets.

Owned by the Ohio Department of Transportation, it was maintained by the city park board, more a decorated right of way than a park. Now heavy equipment is parked there, the name removed. This tribute to Dr. Sabin was not only small but temporary. And this was the man called the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The Mothers' March

Although I'm sure fathers worried about polio, too, mothers were on the front lines of this disease. The "Mothers' March" collected dimes, back when you could still actually buy something with one of them.

One mother I remember, Mrs. Beery, learned how to play the piano so she could teach her son when he got home from the hospital. Doctors had said he'd never use his left hand again. She was determined that he would. And he did.

I remember a church picnic when the Doty brothers weren't allowed to swim with the rest of us because their mom was afraid they'd catch it. They caught it anyway, and wore braces on their legs through high school.

A girl caught the worst stuff, bulbar polio and spent the rest of her life in an iron lung. She learned how to "frog breathe" so she could escape the lung for brief, giddy moments with her friends. Dr. Albert Sabin is the one who made machines like hers obsolete. And the little patch of land named for him was never a grand enough sign of our gratitude.

It will be replaced -- sort of -- by the new and improved Fort Washington Way, absorbed into a "multipurpose, pedestrian-friendly space," says John Deatrick, an engineer with the city. He promised better green space, with lots of big trees and walkways and benches. He showed me drawings, and it looked pretty good.

But it won't be named for Dr. Albert Sabin.

So when you're walking down a 28-foot-wide boulevard on Third Street from Broadway to Plum Street, in shade provided by trees instead of buildings, take a big breath of air. Notice that your kids are walking without crutches, breathing without the whoosh of the iron lung.

Maybe Dr. Sabin would think that's tribute enough.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com