‘A spoonful of sugar’: inspired by the polio vaccine

At the end of an extract describing , Joe Scanlon recalls returning for the administration of the polio booster (you can access it here), and that it consisted, to his relief, of a sugar lump instead of an injection. This brings us to a piece of film history that has been in the media lately.

Many of us recognise this song from the 1964 film of Mary Poppins. Jeff Sherman, whose father Robert Sherman, along with his brother Richard, composed the music for many Disney films, has insights on the fact that the words of the song were inspired by the way the polio booster was administered. Jeff told the story on Wednesday 16 December, 2020, on the Ray Darcy Show on RTÉ Radio 1, and you can read the full transcript of his account here.

The brothers were disappointed that the song that they had put forward as Mary Poppins’ signature tune was rejected by Julie Andrews. That same day, Robert Sherman was at home when Jeff arrived home from school.

And usually after school, my father wouldn’t get home until dinnertime, but he was home and he had the shades closed and he looked really depressed, and I didn’t know why ... So I come home from school, I’m a little boy, and my dad looks at me and says, “How was your day?”

And I said, ‘Well, I had the polio vaccine at school.’

And I was kind of notorious for being that kid, when the nurse would come in with the tray of booster shots, I would tip the tray over, run out of the doctor’s office and hide in the neighbourhood. So he was surprised that I let someone give me a shot at school.

And they had been looking for a phrase like ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, something that would be sort of a Mary Poppins philosophy. And I said to my dad,

‘No, it wasn’t a shot. They took the sugar cube and dropped the medicine on it and you just ate it.’

And my dad stared at me for a long time, went over to the phone, and the next day he went back to the office with my uncle and they wrote ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.’

Clarke, D (2021). Spoonful of Sugar: How Mary Poppins contributed to the Covid vaccine story. Irish Times, 5 December. [online] Available from: <https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/spoonful-of-sugar-how-mary-poppins-contributed-to-the-covid-vaccine-story-1.4427562> [Accessed 10 May 2021].

We should note that, in Joe Scanlon's case, the sugar cube helped the medicine go down, but it couldn’t cover the aftertaste.