As the mother of eight daughters, I know a thing or two about American Girl Dolls (and mostly what I know is that they make wonderful gifts for someone with deep pockets to buy for my eight daughters!).  The dolls themselves are nice enough, if overpriced, but the accompanying books are a great, painless way to sneak some history into your kids' casual reading time. One of the nice things about the AG books is that, as far as I know, they have avoided controversy, and just convey undisputed historical facts without adding shades of interpretation.

Rumor has it that the newest historical doll will be named Maryellen Larkin, and she will be a 1950's girl. I came across a fan board, where one commenter questioned this choice: 

Well, wow. I'm sure it'll be nifty and peachy-keen with a lot of soda fountains and poodle skirts, but I don't see much educational value....

[W]hat will a 1950s character have to share with today's kids? She likes the Mickey Mouse Club?
Perhaps I'm just getting grumpy in my old age (only a few years younger than Julie ), and perhaps I'm ticked that, if they had to do another 20th-century character, it couldn't be from the 1980s. (Yes, I'm serious.)

 In charity, let us scurry quickly past the idea that the 1980's are a more historically rich era than the 1950's (maybe the new doll will be named Cyndi and will come equipped with aa adorable miniature baggie of coke?), and just answer the question she poses: What will a 1950's character have to share with today's kids?

Well, several fan sites are circulating the idea that Maryellen is a polio survivor, and that one of the adversities she overcomes is a limp. Even if the polio angle is only a side story, I'd be delighted to see it introduced to young girls. Why?

In wealthy, progressive Seattle, polio vaccination rates are lower than in Rwanda. Parents in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen are doing more to protect their children from this crippling and often deadly disease than some American parents.

This dangerous trend is due, in part, to historical amnesia. There are fewer and fewer people around who remember the devastation of the polio epidemics of the late 1940's and early 50's.  Between 1945 and 1949, something like 20,000 American contracted polio. In 1952, there were 58,000 cases. Ten of thousands of American were paralyzed; many died. The nation was terrified, and rightly so.

Then came the vaccines. David Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story, says that when the vaccine was approved in 1955 as safe and effective, the whole nation rejoiced at their liberation from this terrifying threat. 

People were hugging in the streets, kids were let out of school, Salk was invited to the White House where Eisenhower broke down in tears thanking him – it was really this shining moment of great faith in science and in medical research ...The nation went into this extraordinary, almost unprecedented celebration short of anything but the end of the world war.

In 1958, there were 5,600 cases, and in 1964, only 121. By the time Jonas Salk died in 1980, there were no cases of polio in any part of the Western Hemisphere. 

Unfortunately, the history of polio eradication is not one of unmitigated success. The vaccine was so welcome in the 50's that one laboratory became sloppy in their rush to produce it, and carelessly manufactured 120,000 batches of the vaccine containing the live polio virus. As a result of "The Cutter Incident,"  tens of thousands of patients actually contracted polio from the vaccine, paralyzing 200 children and killing ten. 

This tragedy eventually prompted greater government oversight and regulation of vaccine production, and there have been no cases of contaminated polio vaccine since then. 

So, will American Girl Maryellen help to remind people that polio was a terrifying, widespread threat just a generation or two ago? I hope so. It's not just a matter of being well-educated in history: If vaccination rates continue to fall, the disease could certainly come back again, spreading among people who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons, and among people for whom the vaccine is not 100% effective. We don't see polio cases around us because vaccination rates have been so high. The threat has not been permanently abolished. We still need to vaccinate. 

Happily, in the U.S., we have two polio vaccines available: Pentacel and Pediarix. The polio component in Pentacel was derived using a fetal cell line, but the one in Pediarix was not (it is derived using monkey kidney cells). In the case of necessary vaccines for which there is no ethically-derived option, I hope that Catholics will remember that the Church allows us to protect our children using the vaccines that are available now, as long as we continue to demand that more ethical vaccines are produced.  

Can American parents learn a valuable lesson from the children's dolls? For the safety of their children, I hope so.