8/31/12 - the legendary oveta culp hobby

In today's excerpt - the legendary Oveta Culp Hobby, the Women's Army Corps, and the scourge of polio:

"Initially, [President Dwight Eisenhower] placed [Oveta Culp] Hobby at the head of the Federal Security Agency, but once the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare formally came into being, Hobby took charge of it. Hobby, a Democrat, was married to a former governor of Texas and was active in that state's journalism—she and her husband managed the Houston Post—and politics. During the war, she had deftly navigated Washington politics and overcame the discrimi­nation of her day to forge a new force in the military, 'an army of women,' as she and others referred to the Women's Army Corps. She overcame resis­tance within the War Department and Congress to secure jobs for women and even redesigned the WAC uniform to make it more appealing. By the time she was through, the WACs were 200,000 strong, with three times that many applications. Hobby worked herself into exhaustion. When she resigned in 1945, her husband met her with a stretcher to take her to the hospital. She recovered and in 1952 spearheaded Democrats for Eisenhower. Eager to place a woman in a position of influence, Ike sought her out. It took some convincing, but she finally agreed. She would, again, work her­self to a frazzle. ...

"Over her thirty months in the Eisenhower cabinet, Hobby had resumed the work habits that drove her to exhaustion during World War II. Ike tried to persuade her to ease up. He gently urged her to take a long weekend at Thanksgiving in 1953. 'I would deem it a very great personal favor,' he implored after informing her that he himself was heading for Augusta. She declined. After meeting with her two months later, Eisenhower worried that Hobby was 'nearing the end of her rope.'

"The demands on Hobby had grown more intense, not less. Her hus­band ... was fighting ill health, and she was frantically overseeing the completion of the Salk vaccine for polio and its promise to halt the terrifying disease. Once known as infantile paralysis, polio was a global scourge that first devastated the United States in 1916, when twenty-seven thousand people were paralyzed after being felled by the virus; six thousand died. Year after year, the virus spread and grew in alarming epidemics. In 1952, the year Eisenhower was elected, more than fifty-seven thousand Americans were infected. Parents kept children out of school, forbade them to swim in public pools, prohibited them from mingling in public places.

"Jonas Salk's breakthrough vaccine was subjected to an extraordinary field test during the early 1950s. On April 12, 1955, the tenth anniversary of the death of FDR—himself a victim of polio—scientists confirmed its efficacy. Americans flocked to get the vaccine. Hobby's department, HEW, oversaw its distribution and early release, thrusting Hobby into the middle of an experiment of nearly unimaginable promise.

"With the announcement of the vaccine's successful field test, families pleaded for access to it. HEW selected six manufacturers that produced the vaccine under provisional rules and then were granted licenses. Distribu­tion began immediately, but on April 26 six children who had been vacci­nated were diagnosed with polio. Cutter Laboratories, which had produced those vaccines, recalled its product from the market, but by early May the number of infected children had grown to fifty-two. Although that must be considered in light of the five million who had been vaccinated over those weeks, the whipsawing of public hope and fear was agonizing to the administration and Hobby. HEW called for a halt to vaccinations on May 6 and intensively examined the vaccine and the labs producing it; the interruption was brief, and vaccines soon resumed.

"But the stress of that episode, added to her worry for her husband, pushed Hobby to her limit. On July 13, she submitted her resignation, citing 'personal reasons of a high order' and explaining that nothing less 'could persuade me to leave your Administration.' Eisenhower knew this was coming, but he was saddened nonetheless. 'All who knew you as a dedicated, inspired American leader will miss your voice and counsel in Government,' he wrote back the same day, in what he described as 'one of the hardest letters I have ever had to write.' 'None will miss you more,' he added, 'than Mrs. Eisenhower and myself.' When Hobby's resignation was made public, it was George Humphrey who most memorably captured the administrations loss. 'She is,' Humphrey said, 'the best man in the Cabinet.' "


Jim Newton


Eisenhower: The White House Years


Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc


Copyright 2011 by Jim Newton


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