The untold story of the discovery of the polio vaccine has been 8-years in the making, but this Thursday, A Shot to Save the World will make its debut on the Smithsonian Channel. The film, which is produced by Steeltown’s own Carl Kurlander and longtime Steeltown adviser Laura Davis and directed by her husband Tjardus Gredianus, tells the underdog story of Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at University of Pittsburgh developing the world’s first polio vaccine and features a rare film interview with Bill Gates about his perspective on the significance of the Salk vaccine and today’s efforts from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, Rotary International and the World Health Organization to finish the job and make the world, once and for all, polio free.
“The goal of Steeltown’s involvement in the production of this documentary was to help bring out this real Pittsburgh story and to help it to be seen by people and help spread the message of advocacy around the world,” says Kurlander, who is also Steeltown’s CEO. “We believe that this story is representative of Pittsburgh and its propensity to change the world.”
Stephanie Dangel, former Board Chair of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, served as the executive producer of the film. “What fascinated me about this project was how courageous the children and their families were who participated as test subjects for the Polio vaccine,” Dangel said. “The children diagnosed with polio in the D.T. Watson house put their lives on the line to use their blood as a way for Salk to test the vaccine, but they never benefitted from it.”
Steeltown’s production manager, Kris Veenis served as co-producer on the film. He worked tirelessly to acquire never before seen archival footage of this monumental event. Because of Steeltown’s deep roots in Pittsburgh, the producers were able to interview those who worked in the Salk lab, such as senior scientist Julius Youngner, and those Pittsburghers were among the first to test the then experimental polio vaccine.
The documentary captures the story of how Salk and his team worked on their controversial “killed virus” vaccine in a tiny basement lab, three floors below a polio ward filled with kids in iron lungs. His work was privately funded, literally dime by dime, through the “Mother’s March” of the March of Dimes as well as by local philanthropist.
It was an unprecedented public campaign and a seven-year battle against medical orthodoxy and the virulent spread of a terrifying disease in America which kept parents from sending their children to the swimming pools, the movie theaters, or even to birthday parties for fear they would catch the polio virus and end up in a dreaded iron lung.
“I first discovered this story at a dinner where Dr. Sidney Busis mentioned to me that he was doing trachiothomies on iron lung patients who were sometimes as young as two years old at Pittsburgh’s municipal hospital. Then Dr. Busis’ wife Silvia mentioned that at the end of his 18 hour days, he would come home and his young children would hug their father, and she realized they could end up with polio for which there was no cure. From the Busis family to Salk’s team who tested the experimental vaccine on themselves, to the 7500 Pittsburgh school children who were part of the first polio vaccine pioneers to offer their arms, Pittsburghers played a truly heroic role in this effort which changed the world,” says Kurlander who first harvested this footage with Pitt students during the 50th anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine.
It was then that Kurlander and Steeltown’s Stephanie Dangel enlisted the help of Laura Davis, whose father was a doctor in Squirrel Hill, but who has produced many behind the scenes documentaries for directors like Cameron Crowe, Michael Mann, and Martin Scorcese, and her husband Tjardus Gredianus who had written and directed Steeltown’s first short Pittsburgh: Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret. Raising funds from the Pittsburgh community and in cooperation with WQED and the University of Pittsburgh, Steeltown completed a 66 minute version of the film called The Shot Felt Round The World that screened at the FDR Museum and Library, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and won Best Documentary last year at the San Luis Obisbo Film Festival. It was then picked up for television by the Smithsonian Channel which has re-edited the film to a one-hour TV program.
Kurlander spent Valentine’s Day this year in Seattle with Smithsonian Channel producer Charles Poe interviewing Bill Gates for the film, talking about what was needed back in the 1950s to develop the Salk vaccine and what is being required today to fight polio. In the film, Bill Gates talks about both how an iron lung worked back then, but also how they have had to use GPS tracking system to help make sure vaccines got delivered where they needed to be today. What was remarkable, Kurlanders says, was how Bill seems to be using all he learned in building his company Microsoft and scaling products there and applying that to global health and trying to end childhood diseases, starting with polio.
In the documentary, Bill. Gates emphasizes the fact that smallpox is, in fact, the only disease completely eradicated from the world, and that while there are only about 250 known cases of polio remaining in the world, there is still more to be done to totally defeat the disease and boost the world’s infrastructure and ultimately turn the world’s eyes to other global health issues.
A Shot to Save the World describes not only the struggle to create the Salk vaccine, but its extraordinary success. Five decades ago, polio was an American scourge. Polio was rampant in 125 endemic countries in 1988. Today it exists in just three; Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, but the final stretch is often the hardest in these battles. Groups like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, which has raised more than $1 billion in a grass-roots campaign, the World Health Organization and Unicef are not ready to quit until the disease is finally eradicated.
As exciting as it is that the world will now see this great Pittsburgh story, Kurlander still sees the importance of this achievement for the city itself.
“It should be remembered that Jonas Salk came to Pittsburgh at a time when people saw this town only as a steel manufacturer. It was the vision of city leaders to bring him here as part of developing a then modest medical sector. Today of course, Pittsburgh is renowned for its achievements in medicine. We are hoping that this film will remind people of what is possible and what we can accomplish when we all work together,” Kurlander said.
Click here to see a trailer and find out the Smithsonian channel on your cable system. Be sure to tune in to the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. on Thursday to see the harrowing story of how the world was forever changed on April 12, 1955, when Salk’s vaccine was declared “safe, potent, and effective,” giving victory over a disease that until then had ravaged the United States.