On the list of my childhood heroes with Odysseus, Zorro, and Bill Russell was Dr. Albert Sabin. Polio was a live issue in our house because my mother had spent a year in an iron lung after she’d contracted the bulbiospinal form of the epidemic disease. This turned her into the lifetime medico-phobe that she was until the day she died. This filtered down to me, and it was only intensified by the fact that I had to get a polio shot every couple of years. I came to dread needles.
The second cause of my trypanophobia—yeah, there’s a clinical word for it—came when I was about six years old and subject to mysteriously high fevers. They put me in the hospital and, very late at night, an orderly the size of LeBron James came and wheeled me into a treatment room. He then took me under my arms and bent me forward. I vividly remember feeling that something very bad was about to happen because they needed this huge person to handle a first-grader. A few seconds later, I had my first (and only) spinal tap. I can still feel the pain that ran up all the way into my ears. I have trust issues regarding medical procedures that I’ve worked very hard to overcome over the past 25 years. I also hate pain.
Anyway, I came to dread the polio shots, but my parents insisted on them. My father managed to get me off the ceiling by talking about how many shots he had to get in the Navy during World War II. He told me that, just before the needle went in, I should grit my teeth really hard. That worked well enough, I found. (I may once have eaten a lip.) But I still dreaded the inevitable booster shots, even though they’d keep me out of the iron lung.
The first miracle regarding polio had come in 1955, when I was two years old. Dr. Jonas Salk developed his vaccine using inactivated polio virus. As soon as I was old enough, I began to get my shots. Then, in 1961, Albert Sabin took away all of my anxieties with a sugar cube.
Sabin developed an oral vaccine against polio. The nuns took us all down to the cafeteria and they handed us this weird tasting sugar cube. (I remember it as tasting surprisingly tangy, like really sharp cough medicine.) That was the end of polio shots in my lifetime. I’ve made my peace with needles. I get my shingles shot, and my pneumonia preventative, every year. I’ve made my peace with IVs after two recent hospital stays. I even give a pint of blood every month as therapy for a genetic blood condition.
So, when the opportunity came to take the Moderna vaccine, I grabbed it like it was the last train to glory. A month apart, I reported to the Thomas Menino YMCA in Hyde Park for my two Dolly shots. After the second one, I fairly flew across River Street to my car, taking deeper breaths than I had taken in over a year. All of which is why I understand many of the people who are reluctant to take the vaccine, my fellow trypanophobes. They should grit their teeth, hard, and get the damn shots, it’s true, but I understand how their minds work. It’s the other ones, the stupid and the stubborn, that I find infuriating. Albert Sabin found them infuriating, too.
It was 1956 and there was a great bogeyman on the other side of the world behind an iron curtain, and great mushroom-shaped clouds of panicky rhetoric. It was not the most auspicious time to go into the research business with Soviet scientists. However, even godless Communists had children, and those children contracted polio the same way that the children of imperialist running dogs did. Sabin had been working on a vaccine that depended on attenuated live polio virus. In 1956, a Soviet scientist named Mikhail Chumatov brought a team to the United States to study Salk’s approach to the problem. Chumatov’s team also stopped in at Sabin’s lab.
In June of 1956, after long negotiations with the FBI, Sabin was cleared to fly to Leningrad to work with Chumatov. Their partnership was so fruitful that, when Sabin’s funding ran out in the United States, Chumatov and Sabin were able to test their vaccine in Russia and, also, in Hungary, where a massive polio outbreak had occurred in 1957, not long after the Soviet Army had crushed the Hungarian revolution. The Salk vaccine had come from the U.S. Now the Sabin vaccine was coming from the same place whence the tanks had rolled. In 2014, Dora Vargha wrote a long study of the start-and-stop cooperation between the United States and Hungary over the polio vaccines, and how that cooperation was caught in the middle of Cold War politics.
While the revolution of 1956 deepened the Cold War divide in the eyes of the United States, the Hungarian government used some of the outcomes of the uprising to lift the Iron Curtain and temporarily allow personal avenues to cut through between East and West. In fact, the shipment of the treasured vaccine was preceded by personal packages containing single doses and over a year’s efforts in domestic production…What is remarkable about this customs policy, and the encouragement of personal aid from family members and friends living abroad, is that through these announcements the state called on precisely the people it wanted to silence, punish, or destroy: émigrés who had left the country on various occasions from World War II onward because of the communist regime.
This all involved the importation of the Salk vaccine from the United States. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Sabin and Chumatov continued their research into the attenuated live virus approach. In 1959, there was another serious outbreak in Hungary that shook the people’s faith in the Salk vaccine. At about the same time, Sabin and Chumatov had a vaccine ready for testing on human beings. And, while the United States was resistant to widespread testing, the citizens of the Soviet bloc did not have the complications inherent to individual freedom.
The scientific exchange between Sabin and Chumakov led to the largest field trial in the history of polio, involving over 16.5 million people across the Soviet Union. Parallel to the Soviet campaign, smaller but equally important trials were conducted in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In 1958–59, Czechoslovakia organized relatively large field trials of a vaccine prepared from the Sabin strains, while Hungary tested the vaccine in one county in November 1959.
This cooperation across the Iron Curtain in the development of the vaccine did not extend to its implementation. In April of 1955, badly manufactured doses of the Salk vaccine had caused a number of vaccinated individuals in California to develop the disease. This had shredded public confidence in the vaccine, and the kept Hungarian press accused American scientists of using the country’s children as guinea pigs. By the time the Sabin/Chumatov vaccine came online, the Hungarian attitude toward vaccinations had changed dramatically. They had had two outbreaks in the intervening years, and Hungarians seemed to have more confidence in vaccines coming from the East.
Once he’d developed his vaccine, Sabin moved on to championing mass vaccination as a means of “breaking the chain” of polio’s contagion. (He had been won over on the subject of mass vaccination of children by the success that Cuba had seen with it.) His vaccine was uniquely suited to this approach because it was more easily stored and more inexpensively distributed. And that, eventually, is how it happened that I walked down the stairs from my classroom and into the school auditorium, where somebody handed me a sugar cube and all my fears dissolved.
There is nothing new in anti-vaccination movements. There have been backlashes against nearly all breakthroughs in that area of science, beginning with the crude inoculations as a defense against smallpox. In the early 1900s, after many states had passed mandatory vaccination laws, anti-vaccination movements got such statutes repealed in seven states, including California. In 1905, Massachusetts beat back a similar challenge to mandatory vaccination laws passed by many of its cities and towns. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court ruled:
The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint, nor is it an element in such liberty that one person, or a minority of persons residing in any community and enjoying the benefits of its local government, should have power to dominate the majority when supported in their action by the authority of the State. It is within the police power of a State to enact a compulsory vaccination law, and it is for the legislature, and not for the courts, to determine in the first instance whether vaccination is or is not the best mode for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of the public health.
So now we call it “vaccine reluctance,” even though every person refusing to be vaccinated is a danger to public health. There’s more political ideology mixed in with vaccination policy in this country right now than there was in Hungary or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That’s just strange.
The great Lance Mannion has left us and his passing requires a testament to his gifts and generosity in a venue appropriate to his prolific blogging life. This particular slab of granite will be carved here, upon this ancient turf, this feed, this blog, this Typepad. For this is where Lance lived and created his world of words, where he sowed such a rich wildflower meadow of scents and colors and shapes and stories. His work was a gift to me and so many thousands of others, very lightly remunerated, and yet so consistent that we took yet another wordsmith spring for granted and the sudden killing frost of mortality has wiped the blooms away. There will be no more posts. No more musings on literature and film, television and media, politics and culture.
It was here where Lance Mannion joined the immortals of our game. He ranks with Steve Gilliard, Gehrig’s “luckiest man” to that Ruthian loss and – in my view – the Iron Horse of the liberal blogging era, a man who kept going long after all the RSS feeds dried up and Twitter injected its instantaneous meanness of spirit into what now passes for discourse. Those gauzy days of the aughts seem distant now, but they were a time of superheroes – writers who wore their disguises like marvelous capes and masks and costumes. I shudder at their remembered majesty and might. “Lance Mannion” invented himself, because he could. Because we all could. Lance was part Bing Crosby part Jack Lemmon and part Damon Runyon. But he also injected hardcore liberalism into middle American tastebuds, like Peter Parker’s radioactive spider. Tolerance crossed with curiosity was his superpower. And so he rambled with the Self-Styled Siren, with the Viscount LaCarte, with Neddie Jingo, with Blue Girl, with Shakespeare’s Sister, with M.A. Peel, with Jon Swift, with Majikthise, with Digby, and all the other crazy superhero bastards (including those of us foolish enough to use our real names). Keep your Rat Pack, brother, that was my crowd.
Lance Mannion was the witty guy down at the end of the best bar in town. You walked into the joint happy to see him there every damned night. You left with his jocular Fred MacMurray banter ringing in your ears, smoother than the most expensive Scotch.
Dave Reilly had a harder road.
Lance was my muse, but Dave was my friend. He was a brilliant writer, out of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a devoted family man who hit some very tough times in late middle life. We went to the Clinton Global Initiative together. We hung around a few Democratic victory parties together. He joined my newcritics blogging venture back in the day. He was a regular at the Hillman Prizes. We marched with the Teamsters at Occupy Wall Street. And then harder times closed in. He had some serious health challenges. And his wife Adrienne – herself a brilliant journalist the very reason why Lance Mannion lionized Lois Lane – became ill. To blog readers, she’s the Blonde or Mrs. M. They were an incredibly close couple, and they loved their boys deeply and publicly. But in this time in this country for a blogger and a newspaperwoman, the economic bar was high even without the healthcare crisis.
Dave would always send a Christmas card. Now and again a postcard. My favorite – as he knew – was the one from Hyde Park, after a visit to FDR’s Presidential library, a place we both revered. He was a very thoughtful man; I was not always as thoughtful in return. Money was tight. The blog raised a bit, but perhaps not enough. The cracks through which a guy like Dave can fall in our society are too damned wide.
If you read the Lance Mannion blog – and by God, it should be preserved – I recommend the posts about his family. He created “Mannionville” and populated it with people. Pop M. The Blonde. Mom Mannion. His boys, Ken and Oliver Mannion. The barista at Barnes & Noble. The guy at the hardware store. A world where people knew each other and cared. That’s where Dave and Lance came together, the place where the blogging superhero took off his mask. They were the same. A loving father, husband, and son. I suspect that’s how he will be remembered the best.
But to me, he’ll always wear a cape.