The eradication of polio in the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th century has been attributed to many things – but one component of the infectious disease’s elimination might surprise you. Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll himself, might have played a surprising role.
In the wake of widespread skepticism about the polio vaccine, Presley opted to get it himself just before an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Vaccination rates among American teenagers quickly shot up after famous pictures of a smiling, unbothered Presley getting a shot backstage showed up in the media.
Dr. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in the early 1950s
Polio – a contagious disease caused by the poliovirus, which affects the central nervous system and can lead to paralysis, muscle weakness, and other lifelong complications – was a major public health concern in the U.S. in the 1940s and early 1950s.
According to the CDC, polio outbreaks caused over 15,000 cases of paralysis each year at the time. Thousands of children died each year from polio-related complications. Travel restrictions and quarantine measures were implemented in an attempt to curb outbreaks.
Enter Dr. Jonas Salk, who worked with a team of research scientists at the University of Pittsburgh from 1947-1950 to develop a vaccine that would combat the polio epidemic. By 1953, Salk and his colleagues had developed the first polio vaccine, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
But there was still one problem – and Presley swooped in to help.
Presley was vaccinated backstage before an appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’
Despite the efficacy of the polio vaccine, many people in the U.S. were skeptical about its potential risks.
The Conversation reports that the vaccine was distributed first to small children and babies, but teens and young adults weren’t so sure if they should believe it was safe. Others were simply unmotivated, believing they couldn’t be affected by polio because they were past childhood.
If there was anyone who could convince teens to do something, researchers reasoned, it was Presley. The iconic heartthrob was the pinnacle of youth culture, and his stardom made him more influential than any politician or physician could have been, especially when it came to teenagers.
Ed Sullivan of The Ed Sullivan Show hadn’t approved of Presley – whose songs “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” had already put him on the map – at first, thinking his hip-swinging and riot-inducing performances were overly suggestive. But after Sullivan finally agreed to have Presley on his show, he couldn’t help but admire the young singer himself.
On Oct. 28, 1956, Presley and Sullivan teamed up to fight polio in a live TV stunt (although it was, indeed, very real). Just before his second appearance on CBS’ The Ed Sullivan Show, Presley smiled winningly at the camera as he received the polio vaccine from Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst and the City Commissioner of Health, Leona Baumgartner.
The rock and roll legend might have played a role in raising awareness about the vaccine
The memorable photos were plastered all over every newspaper the following day, and teens and young adults soon swarmed to get the polio vaccine as well. They even formed a group called Teens Against Polio, which sponsored sock hops for immunized partygoers only.
And it certainly seems Presley’s publicity worked. American teens showed up in droves to get the vaccine, and immunization rates among that age group skyrocketed from 0.6% to 80%, according to History Daily.
In tandem, U.S. polio rates decreased rapidly throughout the 1960s. Since 1979, there have been no new recorded cases of polio in the country. While it’s not completely clear just how much of a role Presley played, it’s safe to say the King certainly made a generous contribution.