“A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down),” the popular song from the classic Disney movie Mary Poppins, was inspired by a polio vaccine developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Because the oral polio vaccine created by Albert Sabin, MD, has a bitter, salty taste, it is sometimes given to children on a lump of sugar or in a spoonful of sweet syrup – known as Sabin Syrup.
Robert Sherman, one of the songwriters for the 1964 film Mary Poppins, said the lyrics to “A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down)” came to mind soon after his 5-year-old son, Jeffrey, explained how he had swallowed the Sabin vaccine along with some sugar while at school one day.
Such efforts to inoculate kids against polio became common at schools and other venues across the country. The first large-scale use in the United States was April 24, 1960 – known as “Sabin Sunday” – when thousands of residents of Greater Cincinnati received Sabin’s polio vaccine on cubes of sugar. They lined up outside Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as well as at schools and churches.
Polio is an infectious disease that can cause paralysis or death, particularly in children, so the introduction of Sabin’s vaccine after decades of research was hailed as a major breakthrough. The Sabin vaccine eventually became the primary defense against polio in the United States and around the world.
Sabin moved to Cincinnati from New York in 1939. “I was particularly brought in to provide expertise on virology,” Sabin recalled in a 1979 video interview. “My job was to study infectious disease.”
Cincinnati Children’s has a long history in helping to keep kids and adults safe from dangerous diseases. That includes developing vaccines – as well as testing and evaluating vaccines that might have been created elsewhere.