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Hope for a Vaccine: Learning about Immunity through The Polio Pioneer

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine
Written by Linda Elovitz Marshall
Illustrated by Lisa Anchin.

Published in August 2020 by Knopf Books.

ISBN: 978-0525646518

Book Review.

Imagine a time when people were so fearful of a virus that children weren’t permitted to go swimming in the summer. They couldn’t join friends for a sleepover or for a day at the park, let alone go to the movies. Although the scene might sound very familiar to children living in the 2020’s, there was another period in time in which a devastating virus known as polio or poliovirus was killing and paralyzing children and adults every year. Even the soon-to-be President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, caught polio and could no longer use his legs. Fortunately, a medical scientist named Dr. Jonas Salk had an idea. He wondered what would happen if people were given a small dose of inactivated virus. Would it help people’s bodies to learn how to fight-off the virus? The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine is a picturebook for grades 1 – 5 that traces the life of Dr. Salk, whose innovative research helped to eradicate the polio virus in many regions of the world. As described in this biography, Dr. Salk collaborated with his mentor and friend Dr. Thomas Francis in creating the first flu vaccine. Then, he and his team of fellow scientists went on to create a vaccine to protect against the polio virus. Nearly two million children in the U.S. participated in the vaccine trials and became known as Polio Pioneers. On April 12, 1955 the nation celebrated. Dr. Salk’s vaccine worked! Within a few years, cases of polio decreased worldwide. At a time when the world is desperate for a vaccine to protect against the Covid-19 virus, this picturebook offers hope that today’s scientists will prevail, including those conducting medical research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom

Creating Connections. As a pre-reading activity, invite children to talk about how it feels when it is not possible to play with their friends or to gather with loved ones during the time of Covid-19. The children could select certain emojis, photos of facial expressions, and/or feeling words from a word bank to help express their feelings. Explain that they are not alone. Share that when their grandparents and great-grandparents were children, there was another virus that kept children inside, especially during the summertime when they wanted to swim and play. The good news is that scientists found a way to keep people healthy and safe. They are working to do the same thing right now with the Covid-19 virus. See Grace Enriquez’s blog post, “Teaching Children about the Corona Virus” for additional connections.

Vaccine Investigation. In The Polio Pioneer, author Linda Elovitz Marshall explains that, “Substances known as vaccines … [have] been made to help protect people against other diseases” (n.p.). Initiate a conversation with children about receiving shots at the doctor’s office.
Invite children to talk about their experiences. If children do not remember receiving their first shots, encourage them to interview their parents/guardians to learn more about their immunizations.

Then, learn about vaccines. Start with a conversation about why vaccinations are important. As a springboard, invite the children to view a 2015 video of former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talking with Elmo of Sesame Street about the protection vaccinations provide to children in fighting germs that enter their bodies. Investigate the science and history of vaccine development. The Vaccine Maker Project has sets of lesson plans and materials for elementary, middle school, and high school. Don’t miss the Vax Pack Hero digital trading cards that provide information about vaccine scientists and philanthropists who have contributed to keeping children and families safe from deadly diseases. For older students, see PBS’s Frontline Lesson Plans for The Vaccine War: The Growing Debate Over Vaccine Safety. At all grade levels, remind children that today’s scientists are working to develop a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. They are conducting trials right now, just like Dr. Jonas Stalk conducted trials to investigate the effectiveness and safety of the polio vaccine he and his colleagues developed.

Polio Worldwide. Today, there are still many people who contract the polio virus. In fact, on Friday, November 6 2020, in response to the growing transmissions of the polio virus in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in under-immunized regions of Africa, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) called for immediate international to combat a major viral outbreak of polio, which can lead to devastating paralysis for both children and adults. As described by the Rotary Club, whose mission is to immunize children worldwide, the polio virus “is spread person to person, typically through contaminated water. It can attack the nervous system, and in some instances, lead to paralysis. Although there is no cure, there is a safe and effective vaccine…” To learn about the polio virus and vaccine, consult the resources associated with World Polio Day, which occurs each year on October 24.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. President Roosevelt is featured in The Polio Pioneer. The only president in US history to have a visible disability, he appears in a wheelchair in the Oval Office. Marshall writes, “Throughout America, polio paralyzed or killed thousands of people… No one could be sure they were safe from the disease. Not even future US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Invite students to learn more about FDR. Begin with a virtual visit to FDR Presidential Library & Museum, which features papers and artifacts of the 32nd President, and a section on the polio epidemic. As described by the museum, “FDR became a symbol of strength and perseverance to Americans.”

The website highlights a quote from FDR’s writings, which could be reflective of his determination not to be defined by polio, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’…You must do the thing you think you cannot do” (Roosevelt, You Learn by Living 29-30).

Expand the study with children’s biographies about FDR such as Krull’s (2010) A Boy Named FDR: How Franklin D. Roosevelt Grew Up to Change America.

Ten Cent Coins. Invite students to examine U.S. coins and to learn about the people whose images that appear on them. Do you know whose face appears on the dime? It’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s! In 1946, a year after FDR’s death, the US dime was redesigned to feature the 32nd President. Visit the US Mint website to learn about the Roosevelt Dime. Engage children in a discussion about the significance of commemorating a person on the circulating currency of a nation. Invite children to design their own coins to commemorate a great person.

Art for a Nation. African American artist Selma Burke sculpted the image of FDR that now graces the dime. Engage students in an exploration of Burke’s work as well as the work of other artists who have been commissioned to commemorate other presidents. Include Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald who were commissioned to paint the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, which are part of a traveling exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery through May 2022.

March of Dimes. In US currency, the dime is a constant reminder of FDR’s pledge to find a vaccine for polio. As described by Time and the Smithsonian Magazine, during the Great Depression, people were encouraged to send dimes to the White House to help support scientists like Dr. Jonas Salk in developing a vaccine against polio. Founded by FDR, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) soon became known as the March of Dimes organization. Visit the US Mint website to view the 2015 March of Dimes Silver Dollar that commemorates President Roosevelt, Dr. Salk, and the March of Dimes for their commitment to ending polio and supporting the health of children.

Introduce children to the important work of organizations like the March of Dimes that raise funds for medical research and provide support to children and families who are navigating certain medical conditions and/or diseases. Discuss the role of foundations and non-governmental organizations in helping children and families all over the world. Make plans to engage students in the activities associate with UNICEF’s World Children’s Day on November 20, which is raising awareness on the cost of Covid-19 pandemic on children’s rights.

Universal Design Exploration. Polio survivors, Ron Mace and Ruth Lusher, helped to implement federal guidelines around the design of buildings and public spaces to ensure universal access to all people, including those with disabilities. Invite children to think about the seven principles of universal design and to see how they are applied in the buildings they visit. Engage children with books about the Disabilities Rights Movement for equality. Include recent titles such as Pimentel’s (2020) All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything. See the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award list for additional titles.

Survivor Study. Like FDR, survivors of polio are not defined by the virus. To the contrary, people are defined by their humanity. Invite children to read about famous people who survived polio. Include the recent picturebook biographies of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, in Joni by Selina Alko (2020), and violinist Itzhak Pearlman in Itzhak by Tracy Newman (2020). Also engage students in a text set about polio survivor Frida Kahlo whose art is world renowned. There are many books from which to choose, including Yuyi Morales’ (2014) Caldecott honor book, Viva Frida.

Thank You Notes. The author’s statement, located in the back matter of The Polio Pioneer, includes copies of the thank you notes children sent to Dr. Salk for developing a vaccine for polio. Invite students to examine the Google Doodle celebrating Dr. Salk’s 100th birthday. It includes one of the children’s thank you notes in the image. Welcome students to create a thank you message for someone who has impacted their lives, including health care workers and scientists.


Creating Connections
Enriquez, G. (2020). Teaching Children about the Corona Virus.

Vaccine Investigation
Frontline, PBS. The Vaccine War: The Growing Debate Over Vaccine Safety.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talks with Elmo.

Vaccine Maker Project.

Polio Worldwide
World Health Organization (2020, November 6). UNICEF and WHO call for emergency action to avert major measles and polio epidemic.

Rotary Club.

World Polio Day.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR and Polio. FRD Presidential Library and Museum.

Krull, K. (2010) A Boy Named FDR: How Franklin D. Roosevelt Grew Up to Change America. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Ten Cent Coins
U.S. Mint.

Art for a Nation
Selma Burke, Renowned for FDR Portrait on the Dime. North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The Obama Portraits Tour. National Portrait Gallery.

March of Dimes
2015 March of Dimes Silver Dollar, US Mint.

A History of the March of Dimes.

Eschner, K. (2017, January 7). People Mailed Dimes ‘By The Truck Load’ to FDR’s White House to Cure Polio. Smithsonian Magazine.

Waxman, O. (2018, January 3). The Inspiring Depression-Era Story of How the ‘March of Dimes’ Got Its Name. TIME Magazine.

World Children’s Day. UNICEF:

Universal Design & Access
Pimentel, A. (2020). All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook.

Schneider Family Book Award:

Seven Principles of Design

Polio Survivors
American Masters, PBS: Polio and Famous People Who Survived It.,Grab%20a%20Hunk%20of%20Lightning).

McRobbie, L. (2020, May 26). The man in the iron lung. The Guardian.

Alko, S. (2020). Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Morales, Y. (2014). Viva Frida. New York, NY: Roaring Brook.

Newman, T. (2020). Itzhak, A Boy Who Loved Violin. New York, NY: Abrams

Thank You Notes
Google Doodle celebrating Dr. Salk’s 100th birthday: