2018 – Shot of History (right arm)

(Ignore the stated publish date – this was published on September 26, 2018)


NOTE: Mike Kelly’s original article is in black and my notes/comments/clarifications are in red. I obviously didn’t take any of the event photos included here, but I, um………..did help them come into being.


 This was the headline:



And this was the article:


Kelly: Hackensack student in 1955 was among first to get polio shot

Monday, April 12, 2010
Last updated: Monday April 12, 2010, 7:30 AM


Photographs tell stories – that’s a fact of life.

But sometimes photos also go beyond the people whose smiles or frowns are captured on film.

Such was the lesson Bob Leafe learned when he scoured through his parents’ home in Teaneck after their deaths and found several grainy black and white photos of himself in another time.

Actually, there WERE no photos – found or otherwise – of this event, which was filmed by an NBC News film crew and on the air that evening. What happened was my mother wrote to NBC right after the inoculations and what I found was the NBC reply envelope and letter from the NBC News Film manager:


Inside the envelope were the actual newsreel film strips that showed me before, during, and after the shot. The film strips were very small, skinny, a bit grainy, and not super-sharp. The longest strip is 8.75″ and the shortest is just over 3.25″. They were REALLY tough to scan. I made some large files and sent them to The Record.

Under the group of 3 strips is the NBC letter plus a hand-written copy of my mother’s profuse thanks to Mr. Juster at NBC:

As far as I know, there are no other images around of this event. If my mother hadn’t written to NBC or documented the event in her diary, there would be no story (she would have made a great historian).


Leafe found himself a part of history.

The photos capture him on an April morning in 1955, as a second-grade student at the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic elementary school in Hackensack. Leafe is only 7 years old. He is wearing a white shirt and a neatly knotted tie and sporting a bushy cowlick and a frown that betrays a none-too-subtle hint of apprehension.

He was being vaccinated for polio.

He remembers he got a lollipop.

In the public-health history of America, there is a clear dividing line – before polio vaccinations and afterward.

Before the vaccine, invented by Jonas Salk, thousands of American kids caught the crippling disease, including a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who went on to become president. After the vaccine few kids got polio.

That dividing line was 55 years ago today – April 12, 1955 – when the federal government gave its stamp of approval to Salk’s vaccine. Eight days later, on April 20, 1955, Robert Leafe’s second-grade class received its vaccinations in the Holy Trinity school auditorium, making them among the first schoolchildren in America to get the drug.

“Newsreel cameras were there,” Leafe’s mother, Eunice, wrote in her diary that day, in a graceful penmanship that featured tight loops on her “L’s” and “S’s.”

“They followed Bobby all the way through,” she continued, “from his entrance through his shot, and even to the huge lollypops all the kids got.”


My mother’s April 20, 1955 diary page. OK – so it’s not really a diary page, but it sounds better than “her daily planner page”. She also made a notation that it was a classmate’s birthday (very thorough, Eunice was):


The “after” shot. The Lollipop Brigade (NOT in alphabetical order – we probably got punished for that). Left to right, we are: Christopher Bonwit, Robert Leafe, Margaret Cassidy, Virginia Thorpe, and The Unknown Inoculatee. (“huge?” “lollypops”? Mother!)


Leafe has no memory of the cameras or even watching the news footage on an early version of the television news that night, even though his mother’s diary mentions that the Holy Trinity vaccinations were featured at 6:45 p.m. In fact, Leafe, who went on to become a widely respected rock-and-roll photographer who captured Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and other music luminaries, recalls nothing of his brief moment in health history.

“I just don’t remember – it was over half-a-century ago,” he said the other day from his Hackensack apartment. “I’m sure I didn’t smile.”

If pictures tell the story, Leafe definitely did not smile.

One photo shows him standing in line with seven classmates. A girl, her hands folded in front of her school uniform, seems stoic and intensely curious as she gazes ahead. A boy rubs his pinky finger and also looks ahead. Another boy glances at the camera, his brow furrowed.

No one is smiling.

The “before” shot. Lined up (in alphabetical order, of course) from left to right are: Geoffrey Devon, Kathleen Higgins, Robert Holden, Robert Leafe, James Lynch. The two Roberts don’t look very well.


In another photo, Leafe is sitting in a chair and receiving his polio vaccination in his right bicep by a man – presumably a doctor – who wears a suit. Another man – perhaps also a doctor – looks on, as do three nurses in starched white hats and uniforms.

No one is smiling.

The “during” shot. Mike Kelly says I’m sitting down…………..that would make me pretty tall for a second-grader. Only the doctor is seated (he’d better be so his hand is steady). Someone asked me if they made me remove my coonskin cap suddenly and if that created the cowlick. Uh, yeah – that’ll work.


Perhaps everyone would be smiling – cheering even – if they understood what the Salk anti-polio vaccine meant for the health of children in the coming decades. But of course, no one could know on that April day in 1955 that Salk’s was nothing less than the first step in the virtual eradication of polio.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which Salk founded in 1960 near San Diego, reports that the last known case of polio in America occurred in 1979. But at its peak in the early 1950s, polio was being diagnosed at a rate of 13.6 cases per 100,000 people.

Compared to the current incidence of cancer in America – 566 cases per 100,000 people – the rate of polio may not seem like much. But to families with a child who contracted polio, the impact was often devastating.

Suddenly, strong, vibrant children were rendered almost motionless. Many were eventually able to walk with the aid of steel braces. Many had to resort to wheelchairs.

There was no cure until 1955, when Salk, then a 40-year-old physician and medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, developed a safe vaccine. Salk, who died in 1995 at the age of 80, is now celebrated as one of America’s foremost scientists.

The vaccine that bears his name, however, could not have been introduced at a more fearsome moment. The post-World War II baby boom was in full swing. Only three years earlier, in 1952, the United States had endured its worst polio epidemic, with nearly 58,000 cases reported.

Many children recovered, but more than 3,000 died and another 21,000 were left paralyzed.

That was just one year. Many other years featured equally devastating statistics of death and paralysis.

As Bob Leafe, now 62, studies the old photos of his vaccination, he ponders the irony, too – how he was unable at the time to fully comprehend what this momentarily painful pinch of his skin would mean.

He wonders if his class was the first to be vaccinated. The Salk Institute confesses that it doesn’t know.

“My research shows 9 million doses of the vaccine were ordered by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later know as the March of Dimes), it may be impossible to identify just what place in the vaccine timeline the Holy Trinity kids held,” said the Institute’s librarian, Carol Bodes, in an e-mail. “In all honesty, I get calls every year from people claiming to be ‘the first’ and wanting their vaccination records.”

Unfortunately, says Bodes, the institute does not keep those records.

“It is my understanding,” she said, “that school-age children were vaccinated en masse, across the country to halt the vicious spread of the disease. I found no reference to the school [Holy Trinity] in the Salk papers, but that’s not unusual, as they are not highly detailed.”


I always thought we were the first in the US to get the shots. Why else would an NBC News film crew in NYC be sent to cover the event? Unfortunately, the Hackensack Health Department, Holy Trinity, and even the Salk Institute were no help. I was very surprised to be told by the Health Department that their records “didn’t go back that far”. 55 years doesn’t seem “that far” in a city that’s over 300 years old.


I went to Hackensack’s Johnson Public Library and looked at some microfiche of The Bergen Evening Record from April 16-23, 1955. I was sure that they would have pictures of the event and a story stating that Holy Trinity was the first in the ? to receive the Salk polio vaccine.

There were mentions of the vaccine on almost every day – how the shipments were delayed and that Bergen County students wouldn’t be getting the vaccine until May (how did Holy Trinity slip under the radar and get it when no one else could? Divine Intervention?).

The only enlightening article I found was from April 20, 1955 – the day of the shots and a day before I expected to find pictures and a big writeup that would answer all my questions. Then I remembered………..this was The Bergen EVENING Record. The event happened in the morning and was in that evening’s paper.

It was on the front page and said, “BERGEN BEGINS VACCINE SHOTS”……..”Holy Trinity Students Start Program Here”, but there were no pictures. The Record photo department must have been asleep at the wheel:

The article identified the doctor as the school physician, Howard Rosenbauer, and said that Clyde Newell – the district health officer – was also present (I’m guessing he’s the other man in my “during” image).

Hmmm………….wouldn’t the Hackensack Health Department have records of him and his whereabouts that day – especially since the event rated a big headline in the paper?

One other person in that same image was identified to me after the paper was published. The story’s writer, Mike Kelly, got a request that morning from a Thomas Hyer in Fair Lawn, who asked how he could get a copy of that image because the middle nurse was his mother, Dolores “Dody” Hyer.

I sent him a scan.


As for Bob Leafe, he wishes he had been more aware of what was happening to his second-grade class when they were summoned for their vaccinations. “I wish I was older at the time so I could appreciate the significance of it,” he said. “But I was just a 7-year-old kid who was told he was getting a shot. I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I do now.”

None of us did.


SO………I learned that day that there are no other pictures of this event (corrections always welcomed) and that  – at the very least – Holy Trinity was the first school in Bergen County to get the Salk polio vaccine. I can’t help but think that there’s a higher “first” involved – one that would attract an NBC news film crew – but that might just be wishful thinking.

Lastly, I have no idea why The Record chose that grumpy-looking shot of me to put in the paper (see opening headline image). The photographer they sent to take my picture commented on how much he liked the smiley shots, but it’s not up to him or me what gets used. He submits all the images he took and someone makes the selection………..someone I must owe money to, I guess.

 Here’s the shot I wished they picked:



 Odd parts of the story got picked up in a couple of distant places:

 (The India Times site):



 A very mixed-up Korean-to-English translation (highlighted in blue) on Facebook:


And my ABSOLUTE favorite comment of all (the last one):

The sudden urge is to cue up the Stones’ “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, but the lyrics don’t exactly fit the intent. At least I still have my favorite do/‘do/Dew:










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