Tuesday Feb. 23, 2016

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Marriage of Many Years

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

“Marriage of Many Years” by Dana Gioia from 99 Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The first large field trial of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine began on this date in 1954.

Outbreaks of poliomyelitis were first recorded more than a thousand years ago. The incurable disease is caused by a virus that attacks nerve cells and sometimes even the central nervous system itself; it causes muscle weakness and wasting, paralysis, and sometimes death. It didn’t kill as many people as other viruses like influenza, but it was highly contagious and it was difficult to determine how it was transmitted. Children were most often affected. The first major polio outbreak in the United States struck in 1894, near Rutland, Vermont; the virus claimed its most famous victim in 1921, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted it after a swim. His legs were completely paralyzed. Roosevelt helped found an organization — originally called the National Foundation on Infantile Paralysis, but later the March of Dimes — to research and combat the disease.

Dr. Jonas Salk was leading the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh when the March of Dimes approached him in 1947. They asked him to lead efforts to research and develop an effective vaccine. He discovered there were about 125 different strains of the polio virus; these could be grouped into three basic types. A vaccine needed to provide immunity to all three types to be considered effective. Salk gathered many different strains of the virus and “killed” or deactivated them by pouring formaldehyde on them. The dead but intact virus was then injected into a subject, whose body would begin to produce antibodies against the virus; the antibodies would enable the body to fight off any future infections. Salk tested the vaccine on monkeys first, and then began the first human trials in 1952. His chief competitor, Albert Sabin, was working on a live-virus form of the vaccine; Sabin claimed Salk’s vaccine wasn’t strong enough and called him “a mere kitchen chemist.” But Sabin’s vaccine took a long time to develop, and was still unstable, so the March of Dimes backed Salk’s method instead. Salk was so confident in the safety of his vaccine that he used himself and his children as early test subjects. All of them, including several other adult volunteers, produced antibodies to the virus without contracting polio.

By this time, there was tremendous pressure to find an effective way to control the disease: 1952 saw the worst outbreak in America’s history, with nearly 60,000 cases reported; more than 3,000 people died and more than 21,000 were left disabled. Salk knew that he needed to begin testing his vaccine on a large scale, and quickly. He set up a makeshift lab in the gymnasium of Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, and personally administered his vaccine to 137 schoolkids. A month later, he announced that the first trial was a success, and he soon expanded his efforts across the country. By the time the vaccine was announced to be safe and effective in 1955, 1.8 million schoolchildren had received the vaccine. Results showed that about 65 percent of test subjects became immune to poliovirus type 1, 90 percent to type 2, and 94 percent to type 3. It marked the beginning of the end of widespread polio outbreaks. The development and approval of Sabin’s competing oral vaccine, which was cheaper and easier to administer, advanced the cause even further.

Soon after the 1954 trials began, the New York Times reported, “This could mean that within the next three to five years polio, crippler of young and old alike, will join diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid and other formerly dreaded infectious diseases as plagues finally tamed and conquered by man.” In 1952, 60,000 people contracted polio in the United States alone; 60 years later, in 2012, polio cases numbered only 223 in the entire world.

It’s the birthday of scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (books by this author), born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (1868). Great Barrington was largely made up of European Americans, and Du Bois freely attended school with white children. He was smart and quick and curious about the world, and served as valedictorian of his high school. When it came time for college, the town raised funds to send him to Fisk University in Tennessee.

It was at Fisk that Du Bois encountered institutional racism for the first time. Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced: blacks could not use the same drinking fountains, restrooms, restaurants, banks, or schools as white people. While he was studying abroad in Berlin, and talking with prominent social scientists, Du Bois decided to write about racism and the African-American experience. He published a landmark book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). The book popularized Du Bois’s phrase “the talented tenth,” a term describing the likelihood of one in 10 black men becoming leaders of their race. He also wrote The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays (1903).

In 1905, Du Bois met with 30 other African-American scholars, artists, and activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls, to discuss the challenges that people of color faced. The men had to meet in Canada because blacks were not allowed rooms at white-run U.S. hotels. It took a few years, but from this first meeting sprang the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909), which still exists today to fight racism and bridge cultural divides.

Du Bois was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana at the age of 95, where he died in 1963, exactly one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his epochal “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

It’s the birthday of the diarist Samuel Pepys (books by this author), born in London in 1633. Thanks to Pepys and his diaries, we have a fairly clear picture of 17th-century Restoration England; without his observations and accounts, historians would have had to rely on the single, government-run newspaper operating in London at that time, and that paper was subject to censorship. Pepys wrote about the plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the coronation of Charles II. He recorded more mundane matters as well: his eating habits, toilet habits, intimate relationships with his wife and several other women, and social events that he had attended.

It’s the birthday of composer George Handel, who wrote the great oratorio Messiah, born in Halle, Germany (1685). His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, not a musician, so as a child he waited till his father went to sleep, then crept up to the attic and secretly practiced his instruments.

A duke who heard Handel, aged seven, play the organ was so impressed that he handed the boy fistfuls of gold coins. Handel’s dad repealed the music ban and the boy was able to study with the town’s church organist. He was a child prodigy, and his tutor announced when Handel was 11 that it was time to turn professional. So he went to Berlin.

In 1741, he was asked to do a benefit in Dublin. He decided to write a new oratorio for the performance, and he worked on it zealously, often neglecting to eat or sleep. In 25 days, he’d created the score for the Messiah, which was composed of 50 separate pieces. When he was finished he said, “I think God has visited me.”

It was on this day in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land — now one of America’s most famous folk songs.

The melody is to an old Baptist hymn. Guthrie wrote the song in response to the grandiose “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin and sung by Kate Smith. Guthrie didn’t think that the anthem represented his own or many other Americans’ experience with America. So he wrote a folk song as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a song that was often accompanied by an orchestra. At first, Guthrie titled his own song “God Blessed America” — past tense. Later, he changed the title to “This Land Is Your Land,” which is the first line of the song.

Although Guthrie wrote the words to the song in his notebook on this day in 1940, he didn’t perform it until 1944, and it was several years more still before he published it in a book of mimeographed folk songs. The song really took off in the 1960s. Bob Dylan did a famous version, and it became a popular anthem during the Civil Rights movement.

It’s the birthday of William L. Shirer (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1904). After graduating from college, he expected to spend two months in Europe. He stayed for more than 20 years and became one of America’s most outstanding war correspondents. He spent much of his early career in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, reporting on the Nazis’ rise to power. After the war, Shirer was labeled a communist sympathizer and couldn’t find work as a journalist. In desperation to make a living, he began The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1961). It was the first historical overview of Nazi Germany for general readers, and it became one of the best-selling nonfiction books of the decade.

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