One of my earliest memories is of standing in line, in some sort of meeting hall, waiting to be given a sugar cube soaked in polio vaccine. Polio was all but eradicated in America by the time I actually knew what it was, but its cultural effects still resonated: I remember Gumby, the little clay boy, being put in an iron lung (used to help polio victims breathe) in one episode; it was one of the most disturbing images of my childhood. And there was the March of Dimes, into which we were enlisted as student-citizens, and whose origins are told in "The Polio Crusade," airing tonight as part of the PBS series "American Experience."
It's a neat, gripping social history of a disease that ranked behind only the atom bomb among midcentury American fears. Although it was not the most dreadful disease of its day -- paralysis was rare, and death very rare -- it played upon the public imagination as a despoiler of youth (and of the summertime, when it was most prevalent). Images here of very small children walking with leg braces and canes are still heartbreakingly potent.
Writer-director Sarah Colt emphasizes the Anytown aspects of the disease, centering her film in sitcom-clean hamlets and suburbs. ("My legs gave out as I was peddling my ice cream cart home for lunch," one victim remembers.) Indeed, part of what made polio so fearful was its created-equal classlessness: "I have no prejudices," says polio, given shape in an archival short film as a skulking shadow targeting white, black and Asian children. "I'm quite impartial."