Historians: SDC test site for polio vaccine

Embattled ?developmental center had been key spot for research|

The next chance for the public to discuss the Sonoma Developmental Center focuses not so much on the uncertain future of the state-run facility (see story at top of A1), but its distinguished past. The May 23 gathering will be the annual membership meeting, of the Glen Ellen Historical Society (GEHS), part party and part discussion, on the topic of “SDC: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow.”

Many of the same speakers heard at the May 2 Transform SDC community workshop will be on hand again, including 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, Kathleen Miller of the Parent Hospital Association, John McCaull from Sonoma Land Trust, and ecological historian Arthur Dawson.

During the history seminar at the Transform SDC community workshop last month, GEHS executive director Jim Shere broke the surprising news that Sonoma State Hospital, as it was then known, was a key test location for a polio vaccine then under research.

“Medical History Made at Eldridge” read the headline of one story in the Oct. 17, 1952, issue of the Index-Tribune. It described the test of a live polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Hilary Koprovski of New York, on “61 boys and girls (who) took the new vaccine in a glass of chocolate milk… regarding it merely as an extra ‘treat’.”

A month later the subjects had demonstrable amounts of the polio-fighting antibodies, the article reported, adding “They have not, of course, been exposed to the dread virus itself.”

The Index-Tribune article clarifies that parents of the young subjects had given their permission for the tests.

Medical testing on the institutionalized patients was not uncommon during that era. The Wikipedia entry on Jonas Salk makes mention that earlier that same year, 1952, the virologist injected 43 children at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children with his killed-virus vaccine; and a few weeks later did the same at the Polk State School for the “retarded and feeble-minded.” Both institutions are in Pennsylvania.

Eventually the killed-virus Salk vaccine and the Koprovski oral live-virus polio vaccine, as modified by Albert Sabin, both helped eradicate polio in much of the world during the ensuing decade.

“Many other medical advances were made there,” said Shere. “It’s an example of the kinds of things that did happen in the past – and could happen in the future, if SDC is allowed to remain open.”

Shere also said the historical society is pursuing a museum at the SDC detailing the history of the 120-year old institution, as well as a digital scrapbook based on Glen Ellen’s residents’ and visitors’ old photos, letters and other memorabilia.

The Glen Ellen Historical Society was founded in 1992 in order to halt the sale of the village cannon – an 8-inch siege howitzer used during the Civil War – to a collector back east. That move was thwarted, and the rural community found their solidarity sparked an organization.

Anthropologist Charles Mikulik, president of the historical society board, will speak at the upcoming event about the history of the grassroots community organization and its devotion to the heritage of the Valley of the Moon, even as the character of the region continues to change.  

“If you look at the character of a place, and how it evolved over time, you appreciate the meaning of history,” said Shere.

Though history will be the primary topic of the May 23 event, it will include live music by local a cappella group Voices in My Head, food and wines for purchase, and the opportunity to mix, mingle and exchange ideas with people who are directly involved in the ongoing life of Glen Ellen.

As well as its annual membership events, the historical society holds symposiums on regional history, celebrated residents past and present and present-day notables, as well as train travel, wine-making, wildflowers and Native Americans.

The annual public meeting of the Glen Ellen Historical Society will be held on Sunday, May 23, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Morton’s Warm Springs Resort, itself something of a testament to an earlier age, located at 1651 Warm Springs Road.

Attendance is free, though donations including memberships are encouraged. Annual memberships are $25, $15 for seniors, with higher levels of support appreciated.

Further information about the Glen Ellen Historical Society is found at their website,

‘61 boys and girls took the ?new vaccine in a glass of chocolate milk… regarding it ?merely as an extra treat.’

- Index-Tribune, Oct. 17, 1952

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