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Pitt lecturer produces new Smithsonian documentary

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

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With several Hollywood screenwriting credits under his belt, it’s safe to say that Steeltown Entertainment Project CEO, Pitt senior lecturer and Pittsburgh native Carl Kurlander has an idea of what makes for a great story.

That’s why in 2005, when he learned about Pitt’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine, he jumped on the opportunity to seek out one of the many members of the team and the greater Pittsburgh community who played a role in one of the greatest and most dramatic medical breakthroughs in human history.

What began as a small student project eight years ago has gained traction and become an award-winning documentary and, most recently, a national TV special.

Tonight, “A Shot to Save the World” will make its debut on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. EST. The hour-long documentary was produced by Kurlander,  former Pittsburgher and Steeltown advisor Laura Davis and current Pitt Law professor Stephanie Dangel. The film features interviews with a variety of individuals who had a direct hand in the effort to develop the vaccine, including Pitt professor emeritus Julius Youngner and John Troan, the former Pittsburgh Press editor who followed Jonas Salk’s efforts to develop the vaccine from start to finish.

The roots of the documentary can be traced back to the efforts of Randy Juhl, the Pitt vice chancellor for research conduct and former dean of Pitt’s pharmacy school who during his time working as the dean of the pharmacy school noticed that, while students wandered through the rooms of Salk Hall every day, few were aware of Salk’s legacy at the school. In order to celebrate Salk’s legacy, he organized an event on April 12, 2000, to dedicate a display to Salk on the fourth floor of the building.

What Juhl discovered was that Salk’s legacy wasn’t simply lasting in medicine. “There is still a network of people who worked at Pitt at the time the polio research team was active,” Juhl said.

Five years later, Juhl worked with Chancellor Nordenberg to organize a university-wide event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the vaccine. It was here where he met Kurlander, who told him ‘“we should really tape this thing,”’ Juhl said.

Kurlander then assembled a team of students to interview many of the attendees of the event, including former test subjects, Salk’s coworkers and other doctors who had worked in the building. Through these interviews, Kurlander was able to learn about the attitudes and fears that hung over the country as polio took its deadly toll on young children.

Each summer for decades preceding the Salk vaccine’s release, thousands of children — primarily under the age of 5 — were infected with the mysterious virus. Many died and thousands more were paralyzed by the debilitating disease.

Juhl said that the effect the illness had on the national psyche was tremendous.

“Here was this illness where one day your child could be out playing … the next they couldn’t raise their head off the pillow. They had to be quarantined, taken to a hospital [and] put into an iron lung. Maybe they recovered fully, maybe they died or maybe they were somewhere in between,” Juhl said.

Juhl described the iron lung as akin to “a big soup can” used as an early artificial-respiration device for children whose chest muscles had been paralyzed by the virus. After being inserted into the iron lung, with only their head protruding from the device, air would be pumped in and out of the chamber, collapsing and expanding the chest until the child was capable of breathing again.

If the muscles in the throat of the infected person couldn’t stay open on their own, however, doctors would perform a tracheotomy, in which a hole is cut into the patient’s trachea to open a direct airway.

According to both Kurlander and Juhl, it was easy for Salk’s team to find motivation to work tirelessly on their vaccine. As they toiled in the basement of the Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital for Contagious Diseases — now referred to as Salk Hall — doctors three floors above were performing tracheotomies on small children every day as the number of victims steadily rose.

The following semester, Kurlander worked with a team of students to create a brief trailer of their footage. However, what began as simply a class project became much more when Pitt alumnus and Lionsgate executive John Dellaverson saw the trailer and suggested it be expanded into a full-length documentary.

“John [Dellaverson] was the one who was the inspiration. He’s the one who saw the trailer and said ‘this could be a movie,’” Kurlander said.

Thus, after teaming up with Davis, Dangel and director Tjardus Greidanus, Kurlander set out to produce a 2010 documentary entitled “The Shot Felt ’Round the World” that went beyond Salk’s work in the lab to explore the way that this fear and the concerted efforts of the March of Dimes created a powerful movement to eradicate the disease. According to Kurlander, the film traces these causes of the cure in order to show viewers that “When you work together and find common ground, you can literally change the world.”

Jane Smith, a professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine,” noted that it is imperative to highlight the collaborative efforts that led to the vaccine.

“A lot of the success of the polio vaccination program was built on the goodwill and cooperation of all the parents that had volunteered their children,” Smith said.

Furthermore, Smith added that “if the March of Dimes hadn’t been funding a lot of the basic virus research, they wouldn’t have had a group of scientists that would have known how to make a polio vaccine.”

In 2012, the documentary won the award for Best Documentary at the San Luis Obispo film festival. Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian Channel made the decision to pick up the documentary. In adapting it for television, the Smithsonian Channel not only edited the length, they also included footage on the modern efforts by philanthropists such as Bill Gates to eliminate polio from the earth entirely.

In making these scenes of the documentary, Kurlander was given 15 minutes to interview Gates. The prospect was nerve-wracking.

“I can’t do anything in 15 minutes,” Kurlander said.

As a result of the inspiration of Pitt alumni and the documentary team’s desire to find the hidden stories in the polio effort, “what started out as a student project to document the contributions of the city of Pittsburgh to the polio story became a [full-length] documentary,” Juhl said.

The story of Salk’s breakthrough effort to develop an effective and safe vaccine for polio is well-known among Pitt students. In Kurlander’s eyes, it’s the achievement that truly sets the University of Pittsburgh apart from any other university.

“Tell me the big diseases that Georgetown cured, or Harvard, or Princeton. Pitt is the only school in the world that can really claim to have eradicated a disease.”

For Juhl, however, the process of creating the documentary simply reiterates the incredible nature of the campaign to end polio.

“It’s taken longer to get [the documentary] on TV than it did for the polio virus research team to eradicate polio from the North American continent,” Juhl said.

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Pitt lecturer produces new Smithsonian documentary