The Shot Felt 'Round the World: Pitt to Host April 14 By-invitation World-premiere Screening of New Documentary

Issue Date: 
April 5, 2010

Jonas Salk (left) with Julius Youngner.Jonas Salk (left) with Julius Youngner.

During the evening of April 14, Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill will cohost a by-invitation-only world-premiere screening of a new film documentary, The Shot Felt ’Round the World, produced by Pitt Film Studies Program faculty member Carl Kurlander. The documentary tells the story of the Pitt research team and the Pittsburgh community’s roles in the creation of the Salk polio vaccine. The event celebrates the 55th anniversary of the vaccine being declared “safe, effective, and potent.”

The following is an essay about the new documentary.

By Carl Kurlander

If one were to write a fictional horror movie script, it could not be more dramatic: A disease seeks out mainly children and terrorizes them and their parents each summer season. They no longer go to pools or movie theaters for fear that they might contract the potentially fatal disease that often cripples its victims, leaving many in a dreaded iron lung.  And then, a medical miracle occurs—and with it, a medical superstar is made: Jonas Salk. His name becomes synonymous with a vaccine that he initially requested not be named after him. Less widely known is the story of his University of Pittsburgh research team, including senior scientist Julius Youngner, and the events that took place from the late 1940s to 1955, little more than a handful of years that changed the medical community, the nation, and the world forever. After a beloved, polio-afflicted U.S. president had inspired the country’s men, women, and children to send their dimes year after year to fund research that would one day conquer the terrifying disease, some of those dimes ended up underwriting research at a little-known, newly established basement lab at Pitt. The entire Pittsburgh community, quite literally, rolled up its collective sleeves to conquer the most feared disease of the first half of the 20th century.

In April 2005, as a visiting professor at Pitt, I found myself supervising a group of students who were documenting the University’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine being declared “safe, effective, and potent.” Chancellor Nordenberg welcomed a crowd in the Cathedral of Learning that included Youngner, who had come to Pittsburgh as a brilliant 28-year-old scientist and whose contributions made the vaccine possible; James Sarkett and Ron Flynn, polio patients at Municipal Hospital and the D.T. Watson Institute, who had selflessly volunteered to be the recipients of an experimental polio vaccine from which they could not benefit directly; physicians like Sidney Busis, who had done tracheotomies on young iron lung patients when he was fresh out of Pitt medical school and returned home after 18-hour days to be hugged by his own young children, who could easily have become polio victims themselves, and nurses like Jodi Zogran who had taken care of those patients on the third-floor polio ward of Municipal Hospital while three floors below, at the University of Pittsburgh Virus Lab,  initially housed between a morgue and a darkroom, lab technicians like Ethel Bailey were pipetting the live polio virus by mouth.  Also in that audience were hundreds of former Pittsburgh schoolchildren who had been among the first healthy human volunteers to receive the still-experimental Salk vaccine before 1.8 million Americans would follow in their footsteps as part of the largest medical field trial in history. As part of that 50th- anniversary celebration, Peter Salk, the eldest son of Jonas Salk who had worked closely with his father trying to develop an AIDS vaccine, looked over the audience and said that “it must be remembered … this wasn’t the work of one man—it was the work of a team. You are all heroes.”

The making of this film has been an equally collective effort, produced by myself and Laura Davis with Steeltown Entertainment Project and WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh in association with the University of Pittsburgh and 1905 Productions. It was directed, written, and edited by Tjardus Greidanus; Stephanie Dangel Reiter was its executive producer; and Jodi S. Klebick was the executive for Steeltown Entertainment Project. Scores of Pitt students also assisted in the film’s production.

Because of a group of modern-day polio movie pioneers who supported this film, The Shot Felt ’Round the World puts on camera for the first time many unsung heroes who were part of defeating polio in this country. During one of his last interviews, Jonas Salk urged others to simply “study success.”  Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher insisted we show a work-in-progress version of this film to the class. Beforehand, the teacher asked how many kids wanted to be a scientist. One kid raised her hand. After seeing the film, she asked again, and almost a dozen hands went up. This film is offered with the hope that it will remind us and future generations of what is possible when we as a University, a community, and a country pull together to face our toughest medical and societal challenges.

Senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, The Shot Felt ’Round the World producer and native Pittsburgher Carl Kurlander is also a Hollywood screenwriter (St. Elmo’s Fire), a television writer/producer (Saved by the Bell), and cofounder of Steeltown Entertainment Project. His critically acclaimed film on Pittsburgh reinventing itself, My Tale of Two Cities, is currently playing in selected theaters across North America; for clips from and further information on the latter film, visit