With ties to Sewickley Valley, polio film showing at Tull Family Theater
The former summer home of an international attorney in Leet, now known as the Watson Institute, once served as one of four clinical trial sites in the United States for the polio vaccine.
"It's really important for people to understand this quiet, beautiful community played such a pivotal role in eradicating this disease," said Kara Mostowy, chief development officer for the Watson Institute, now in its 100th year and comprised of special education schools, and resources and programing for children with special needs. "It was here. He tested it here."
In 1952, approximately 56,000 Americans contracted polio, an infectious disease that can lead to paralysis. More than 3,000 of them died from the disease. In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team administered a polio vaccine at the then D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children. The success of these trials led to more widespread vaccinations, according to the Watson Institute.
By 1957, the Watson Institute states, the number of polio cases in the country had declined to 5,600. That number continued to drop.
A British film, featured at the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley through Nov. 9, showcases the struggles and triumphs of Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio at 28 and was paralyzed from the neck down. "Breathe" follows Cavendish as he desires to live a full life and advocates for other people with disabilities.
The Tull Family Theater sought to promote the film in the area, due to its local connection, Executive Director Carolina Pais-Barreto Thor said.
They found an interest in the local Rotary Clubs, as the Rotary International is working with the film's producer, Cavendish's son, Jonathan, to promote the film. Rotary Clubs across the world also recently celebrated World Polio Day on Oct. 24.
With the local ties, the Tull Family Theater — one of two Pittsburgh-area venues to show the film this week — extended the movie for an additional week.
"The first vaccine was discovered here and tested just a few minutes away from the theater," Thor said. "We would be remiss not to mention the first polio vaccine was developed here in the Pittsburgh-area, more specifically just down the street at the Watson Institute."
The film is an "extraordinary story" and "very inspirational," Thor said.
"He and his wife had such a courageous spirit," she said.
The film is just the start of a partnership between the Tull Family Theater and the Watson Institute, Mostowy said. Students from the school go into the community to work on their vocational skills, and the Tull Family Theater is a part of that.
"We're just getting started," she said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.