Cleveland residents lined up to receive their vaccinations.

“This was one of the finest hours of American medicine. It was the flowering of the finest in community responsibility,” said Don Dunham, Medical Editor of The Cleveland Press about the opening phase of the Academy of Medicine of Cleveland and Northern Ohio (AMCNO)’s three-part Sabin Oral Sunday (SOS) campaign against polio.

The Sabin Oral Sundays program would become the hallmark accomplishment of the AMCNO. Over six Sundays in the summer of 1962, more than 1.5 million Clevelanders were vaccinated against polio, making the campaign the most successful in the country.

Cleveland Police provide escorts for Pfizer trucks that contained the polio vaccine.

The Academy decided to launch the SOS program during a visit Dr. Albert Sabin made to Cleveland on April 3, 1962, to deliver the Hanna Lecture at the Allen Memorial Library. Academy officials agreed to undertake the daunting SOS program and announced their decision to the public on April 5. A few days later, the Academy signed a contract with the Pfizer Company, a pharmaceutical firm, to supply Sabin’s vaccine. Signing the contract itself was a courageous act given that the Academy had only $900 in its treasury and the SOS program was estimated to cost $500,000. The Polio Vaccine Committee got working money for the program through local partners including The Cleveland Foundation which advanced $20,000 and the Beaumont Foundation which loaned $15,000. 

Mrs. Lester Farber receives her vaccine through the drive thru for handicapped patients.

On the Polio Vaccine Committee were Dr. Hopwood, Dr. Leedham, Dr. Garry Bassett, Dr. Chester R. Jablonsky, Dr. J. Glen Smith, Dr. Frederick Suppes, and Dr. Howard Taylor along with AMCNO staff members Robert Lang and Donald Mortimer. Two Academy members—Dr. Howard H. Hopwood and Dr. Charles L. Leedham—were named co-chairmen to run the program. Both were able, vigorous organizers and superbly selfless, and they spurred the program from beginning to end. Even an emergency appendectomy did not slow down Dr. Hopwood who continued working on the project from his hospital bed. 


Cleveland residents receive their vaccines at Collinwood High School in Cleveland.

Incredibly, 730 Academy physicians volunteered at 92 clinics for six Sabin Sundays. They, and many of their wives, worked to the point of exhaustion. Said one veteran Academy member when it was all over— “I have never been prouder of my profession”. Each clinic used a multidisciplinary medical team with pharmacists and either a dentist or osteopath at each site assisting the leading physicians. Pharmacists had the important and fatiguing task of putting three drops of vaccine on each of the tens of thousands of sugar cubes. Other personnel included registered nurses, PTA members, Red Cross volunteers, Boy and Girl Scouts, service groups, bankers, and policemen from each municipality who directed traffic given the immense number of attendants at each clinic. 

SOS Billboard in downtown Cleveland.

Promoting the program within the community was a major task which would dictate if the Academy’s efforts would end in success or failure. Bob Lang impressively formed a relationship with the firm McCann-Marschalk to organize and direct the program’s advertising campaign. Bill Sansing, Stuart Buchanan, and their staff from McCann-Marschalk shared the Academy’s vaccination efforts with greater Cleveland area residents through billboards, posters, brochures, radio, and TV. Their work was so successful that nearly everyone in the community knew about the SOS program.

Another important factor in the Academy’s social outreach was the work of Charles M. Nekvasil, public relations manager of the United Appeal, who worked with the Academy throughout the SOS program. Nekvasil and his staff of professional writers flooded the area with the written story of Sabin Sundays. The efforts of Sansing, Buchanan, and Nekvasil with each of their staff were a tremendous factor in the final success of the SOS campaign.

Linda and Jeff Zahn bravely take their vaccinations.

While the physician members of the AMCNO spearheaded the campaign, they needed a much larger team to be successful. Among these were nurses, Red Cross workers, pharmacists, osteopaths, dentists, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts, PTA, switchboard girls, bankers, broadcasting executives, radio and TV engineers and talent, newspapers, printers, school janitors, teachers, public relations people and executives from both welfare groups and private industry, major advertising agency personnel, ham radio operators, the ball clubs, and sportswriters. Clergy members also played an important role in emphasizing the importance of the vaccination program. Even this listing, long as it is, is incomplete. 

To prepare an SOS site, the Cleveland Wholesale Drug Company on the East side of Cleveland acted as a supply center for the Eastern half of the county while McKesson-Robbins Wholesale Drug Company served the west side of Cuyahoga County. The drug companies were of particular importance in relation to two aspects of vaccine supply: 1) dilution and mixing of the concentrated vaccine and 2) distribution and control of vaccine supplies at the clinic sites on the day of each Sabin Oral Sunday event.

Mrs. Daniel Weckstein helps her one year old daughter Karen receive the vaccine.

The clinics for Sabin Oral Sunday were open between the hours of 12 to 6 p.m., and they saw the highest clinic attendance between 12 and 2:30 p.m. when they saw approximately 40% of the population served by each clinic site. 

The Lyndhurst police force help deliver vaccines.

Some of the suburban clinics handled as many as 25,000 people per Sunday requiring an abundance of supplies. In total, volunteers distributed a total of 5,000,000 sugar cubes in 5,000,000 tiny paper cups. 7,000 pencils were needed to complete 7,500,000 registration forms. 140 ice chests plus tally sheets, masking tape, clip boards, droppers, paper clips, rubber bands were used. Some 250,000 posters were placed throughout Cleveland, and 500,000 brochures were sent out. The SOS telephone line, CE 1-8000, known as the “polio” number, had such traffic that seven phone sets were installed with 9 lines on each. The SOS staff and teams from the women’s auxiliary at the Academy worked the telephones.

David Pugh and daughters Connie and Casey are eager to receive their vaccinations.

Six hospitals—Lakewood, Parma, Fairview Park, Suburban Community, Huron Road, Euclid Glenville acted as satellite stations to shorten the time for delivering supplies.

The Regan family is escorted inside to receive their vaccinations.

Perhaps the general impression of the Cleveland SOS program by one observer from New Jersey might sum up the outside viewpoint: “Unquestionably, the high regard with which the Academy of Medicine is held by the lay population as well as the professional community in Cleveland was most influential in initiating the program and in carrying it through successful completion”.

Mayor Celebrezze awards the Academy a proclamation for the SOS program.

While some were surprised that Cleveland could vaccinate 1,500,000 people with such poise and organization given only seven weeks to prepare the campaign, those working and partnering with the Academy trusted it would be successful given the tremendous heart of Cleveland and its people. It is unlikely that any other large metropolitan city has ever demonstrated such humanitarianism so consistently and in as many ways.

Dr. Robert Rogoff of Charity Hospital vaccinates infant Lecia Lynn Carter.

In the words of Dr. Albert B. Sabin, developer of the Sabin Oral Vaccine, “There has been no record like that anywhere in the world. This is the most extraordinary response I have ever heard anywhere. You people in Cleveland must have done a remarkable job. This is a unique achievement in all the world. I hope that somebody does a real job of analyzing the reasons for your great success so that they can be passed on to other cities to help them.”

As AMCNO leadership noted at the time, Greater Cleveland is the unsung great city of America until a given program stuns people into its worth. Louis B. Seltzer, editor of The Cleveland Press and News said of the program: “I think that SOS was the greatest outpouring of community consciousness in the history of America’s Great cities. It could succeed only in Cleveland among major metropolitan areas. It proves that the heart and soul of Cleveland are just what we always have believed them to be. It was a terrific job of organization and probably the greatest piece of promotion and public relations we have ever seen.”

Mayor Anthony J. Celebrezze said: “The dramatic and unparalleled success of the initial Sabin Oral Sundays throughout Greater Cleveland is a tribute to the citizens who participate to the physicians and others who conducted the program. More than that, it sustains our great tradition as a community which always has placed the health and welfare of all its people foremost among its many civic programs.”

Vic Werts, Detroit Tigers first baseman and former polio patient as a member of the Cleveland Indians asked: “Where else can anyone get a sugar cube insurance policy that will guarantee him protection from polio, and prevent him from spreading polio to his kids, grandkids and neighbor’s kids?”

An unidentified policeman at one of the Eastside distribution centers stated: “This is the damndest, most fantastic traffic jam I’ve ever seen in 26 years on the force—but nobody is sore about it. And neither am I.”

A leading surgeon said at the end of a long day at an SOS clinic: “Today I was damned proud to be a doctor and a member of the Academy of Medicine.” 





Click on the image below to watch a short film about Sabin Oral Sundays