Black Americans Were Slower to Get the Polio Vaccine, Too.

Covid-19 is exposing inequalities in healthcare that have roots in 1930s “Jim Crow medicine.”

By Karen M. Sughrue
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Racial and health biases have a long history in America.

During the polio outbreaks of the 1930s, white scientists had pushed the theory that Blacks were less susceptible to polio. But in fact, many cases of polio in Black victims went undiagnosed. A segregated medical system denied them access to adequate care, in what was known as “Jim Crow medicine.”

“One of the things that the history of polio tells us is that our racial disparities, health disparities were not invented in the past 10 years, and that very often, they have been deliberately ignored,” Naomi Rogers, a medical historian at Yale, told me.

An image from RetroReport

The top polio treatment center at Warm Springs, Ga., (above) founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s most famous polio victim, admitted only white patients.

The budding civil rights movement protested the discrimination. But instead of integrating Warm Springs, the managers decided to preserve the segregated status quo, opening a separate facility with a few dozen beds to treat Black patients 80 miles away in Alabama (below).

An image from RetroReport

Even into the late 1950s, as vaccines began to bring an end to polio, the disparities continued. Black communities were slower to receive vaccines and their vaccination rates lagged behind those of whites.

In a new short film, we highlight a little-known chapter in the history of another epidemic - polio - to explain racial disparities visible today with Covid-19, which has been much more deadly for Black and Hispanic Americans than whites.

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