The Most Powerful Photograph Against Vaccine Hesitancy, Ever (1953)

Peter Salk
© March of Dime Foundation

As a commissioned health science photographer, I have encountered a few cases of vaccine hesitancy (reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated) which I have documented. Being a person of visual communication, I am always searching for a frame that is powerful yet positive enough to break the hesitancy. I have not succeeded yet, at least not very convincing to me. But 67 years ago an unknown photographer already did it, that popped up during my recent photo research on global vaccination. And it immediately became my all-time favorite image against vaccine hesitancy. Let me tell the background story and narrate the photograph in terms of composition and visual literacy.

In 1951, at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team developed a method of cultivating poliovirus in monkey kidney tissue. The method would lead to the ability to produce large quantities of viruses for the vaccine.

By that time, Dr. Hilary Koprowski of Lederle Laboratories already tested his attenuated Type II poliovirus vaccine on himself (1948) and also on 20 children (February 27, 1950). But Dr. Koprowski’s methods generated considerable controversy among others who were working on experimental vaccines. Many thought that the move to testing a live vaccine in human subjects was premature, and some objected to testing the vaccine on institutionalized children, though the practice was frequent in this era.

In 1952, Dr. Salk and the team, with the support of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, began its first tests on humans of their killed-virus polio vaccine. The subjects were resident children in institutions for the physically and intellectually disabled. Salk tested the vaccine for all three strains of polio, some in combination, and some on their own. Their findings showed that vaccine recipients produced antibodies to the virus type in the vaccine they were given. Salk’s results provided some evidence on which to base larger trials.

In the same year, there was an outbreak of polio in the United States. 57,628 polio cases were reported and more than 21,000 of them paralytic cases. This epidemic heightened parents’ fears of the disease and focused public awareness on the need for a vaccine.

Immediately after the outbreak, some media reports suggested that a polio vaccine was nearly ready for widespread use. To deflate the nation’s hope, on March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk went on the radio. He insisted, “although progress has been more rapid than we had any right to expect, there will be no vaccine available for widespread use for the next polio season.

During this period, Dr. Salk became the most well-known scientific name behind the search for a vaccine. But success and fame come with its own enemy. Some other scientists, working on live, attenuated polio vaccines, became jealous of Salk’s public profile and objected to his killed-virus approach. They argued that his vaccine would fail to produce long-term protection from polio and that danger lurked in Salk’s choice of a virulent Type 1 (Mahoney) virus strain.

Dr. Salk understood that the biggest hindrance to achieving his goal would be his fellow scientists. If the public would get convinced by their words, then there will be a mass vaccine hesitancy developed all across the nation. To combat the situation, he took a drastic yet fruitful step. Jonas Salk assured the public that he would vaccinate his own family first, adding, “I will be personally responsible for the vaccine.”  Dr. Salk injected himself, his wife, and their three sons with his experimental poliovirus vaccine.

The above photograph captured by the unknown photographer shows Peter Salk receives a polio vaccine shot from his father, as his mother and Dr. Salk’s first wife, Donna Lindsay, looks on.

For me, this is the most powerful yet positive photograph against vaccine hesitancy in the history of immunization. Not just for the historical perspective, but also composition-wise. The horizontal framing is already giving a sense of stability. The body language of all three subjects, other than Dr. Salk, it is evident how much they rely on him. Peter was smiling. He was enjoying the moment and having fun. Donna Lindsay seemed to be very casual yet positive, by placing both her hands on Peter’s thigh to give assurance. Dr. Salk was calm and composed. And, the nurse assisting Dr. Salk had a smiling face, focused on her job assuring that the sleeve must not fall. But simultaneously, she did not forget to place her right hand on Peter’s left shoulder as a sign of assurance and comfort. She must be a very senior and experienced in in her job. Among four of them, three were seated and very close to the ground. All three adults created a triangle in the photograph. A triangle with its horizontal base always gives a sense of stability, because we are afraid of falling against gravity. And the two diagonals of the triangle are dynamic because they imply motion or tension. This triangle shows the there is a tension in the image with a sense of confidence or stability. Peter, was placed perfectly in the center of the triangle. As a central character, he was safe and protected by the arms of the triangle. It is very obvious that these theoretical perspectives of visual literacy might not play in the conscious mind of that unknown photographer. But these are techniques of composition. And techniques need to be practiced to run in the subconscious mind to make a powerful composition. All these compositional elements are playing their roles in the unconscious level of a viewers’ mind when they observe or read a photograph. The photographer here did h/er job perfectly. S/he forced me to read the image. That’s how a two dimensional, static image became a powerful narrator. 

Peter Salk

Polio has considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. On April 25, 1954, the Vaccine Advisory Committee approved a field test of Salk’s polio vaccine. The trial began the next day. with the vaccination of thousands of schoolchildren. In all, over 1.3 million children participated in the randomized trial. And certainly, Dr. Salk’s three children were the torchbearer.

Jonathan Salk
This is another characteristic triangle frame of the unknown photographer, where Jonathan Salk receives the polio shot from his father on the same day. The only difference we can observe is that the body language which changed as the age decreases and the response of the kid. Image @  UC San Diego Library.

In January 2016, the Giesel Library of California displayed the exhibits that were used by Dr. Salk and related to him or his work. These include files relating to polio, his writings and philosophy, photographs, artifacts—including two dictating machines—personal writings, and various research materials. Jonathan Salk’s above photograph was part of the exhibition. Even, in that exhibition, the name of the photographer was omitted.

Neither Dr. Jonas Salk patented his polio vaccine. Nor the photographer asked for the credit. For humanity, for mankind. But their creativities are juxtaposed in a single photograph.

With all probability, the photographer is no more with us. Hence, being a photographer, this is my tribute to that unknown soul by remembering h/er humble work to capture one of the greatest humans of mankind in his mission.

Thank you for inspiring us!!!

Source: The Atlantic; WCSA World; History of vaccines; UC San Diego Library; March of Dime Foundation.

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