University of Pittsburgh
April 8, 2015

60th Anniversary of Polio Vaccine’s Success to Be Celebrated at Pitt

Free film screening of The Shot Felt ‘Round The World will be shown blocks from the Pitt lab where history was made
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—As public dialogue about vaccines continues and recent headlines announce how a genetically engineered polio virus might become a promising cancer treatment, the story of how the nation and the city of Pittsburgh pulled together to develop the first polio vaccine is a particularly timely tale.      

On April 12, 1955, international headlines rang out “Victory over Polio” when the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh was declared “safe and effective” after the largest medical field trial in history. 

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of that announcement, the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Association and Steeltown Entertainment Project are presenting a free public screening of the award-winning film The Shot Felt ‘Round The World, which documents this Pittsburgh polio story. It will be shown at 7 p.m. April 12 in the Frick Fine Arts Building, 650 Schenley Dr., Oakland. A dessert reception will follow. Visit https://www.alumni.pitt.edu/the-shot-felt-round-the-world/ to register for free tickets. 

If one were to write a fictional script, it could not be more dramatic than the true tale in The Shot Felt ‘Round The World. A horror movie would talk about a disease that seeks out mainly children, terrorizing them and their parents each summer season, making them no longer able to go to pools or movie theaters for fear that they might contract a potentially fatal disease which often crippled its victims, leaving many in a dreaded iron lung. And then a beloved, polio-afflicted president inspires a nation to send dimes to the White House, some of which go to an unknown 33-year-old physician, Jonas Salk, and his team at the University of Pittsburgh. In just six short years, working in a basement lab between a morgue and a darkroom three floors below the Municipal Hospital polio ward filled with iron lungs, this maverick thinker and those working alongside him would develop a vaccine that would save the lives of millions. 

The Shot Felt ‘Round The World puts on screen many unsung heroes who played a role in Salk’s extraordinary effort: Julius Youngner, who had come to Pittsburgh as a brilliant 28-year-old scientist with experience on the Manhattan project and whose contributions to the vaccine were essential to its success; James Sarkett and Ron Flynn, polio patients at Municipal Hospital and the D.T. Watson Institute, who both selflessly volunteered to be the recipients of an experimental vaccine from which they could not benefit directly; local doctors and nurses like Sidney Busis, who performed tracheotomies on young iron-lung patients in the third-floor polio ward of Municipal Hospital while three floors below at the Pitt Virus Lab, lab technicians like Ethyl Baily were pipetting the live polio virus by mouth; and some of the 7,500 former Pittsburgh school children who had been among the first healthy human volunteers to receive the still-experimental Salk vaccine before 1.8 million Americans would follow in their footsteps. The film also gives a fresh portrait of Jonas Salk who led this effort and who, as a boy, had “prayed that he could do something good for humanity.”  

Because of their efforts, today polio is only a vague memory in most countries, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and the World Health Organization are teaming up to finish the job and eradicate polio once and for all. The Shot Felt ‘Round The World tells the story of how a community and a nation pulled together to defeat the most feared disease of the 20th century and reminds us all of just what is possible when we all work together.

Produced by the Steeltown Entertainment Project, The Shot Felt ‘Round the World has been screened at the FDR Library, the Gates Foundation, the Salk Institute, and festivals across the country. Versions modified for television have been shown on the Smithsonian Channel with a special interview with Bill Gates and on the BBC. 

This month, the Steeltown Entertainment Project is hosting a “Take A Shot At Changing The World Contest” for middle- and high-school students in Southwestern Pennsylvania, who can win prizes for making their own videos connecting what happened with the Salk vaccine to how they would change the world for the better. Visit www.takeashotcontest.org for details.  

The film was produced by Laura Davis and Carl Kurlander—a senior lecturer of film studies at Pitt who developed a trailer for the film, along with his students, using interviews from 50th anniversary celebrations of the polio vaccine. The trailer caught the attention of Hollywood filmmaker Tjardus Greidanus, who then served as director, editor, and director of photography for The Shot Felt ‘Round The World

Visit www.shotfeltroundtheworld.com or www.steeltown.org for more information.

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