Many remember the iconic image of the King of Rock’n’roll Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccine prior to his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. But few may be aware that Yale alumna Ruth Taber was instrumental in making the memorable event happen.
Taber, a 1954 graduate of the Yale School of Medicine’s public health program, had just started her first job after graduation working at the New York City Health Department where Leona Baumgartner, the city’s first woman health commissioner, was an early advocate for health education.
Tasked with publicizing Jonas Salk’s breakthrough polio vaccine, Taber had little trouble getting the city’s younger kids vaccinated. But reaching the teen population was becoming a challenge.
Then, she had an idea.
“Who was the most popular entertainer in the world?” she asked in a recent interview. “Elvis Presley! And I knew he was coming to New York to do The Ed Sullivan Show. So, I called Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and I told him [Elvis] has standing, and he can do a good deed. Why not have him get vaccinated, and we can take a photo of it and send it out to all the newspapers?”
Sure enough, the photo of Elvis getting his polio shot appeared in newspapers across the country and his willingness to receive the vaccine helped convince millions of others to do the same.
“That was the most successful public relations campaign ever,” Taber said. “We got two-thirds of all the teens vaccinated. It was just common sense.”
Fast forward and 65 years later, Taber, now 93, is still as passionate, engaged and opinionated about her beliefs as she was in 1956. But rather than polio, Taber now has her sights set on aging and its importance in public health.
She is clearly frustrated by the lack of services and adequate health care for older individuals, and the need for more public health and medical students to concentrate on helping our growing older population. She thinks many people are biased against older people.
“Aging is not considered good,” she said in a recent phone conversation from her home in El Paso, Texas, where she and her husband, accomplished physician and author Dr. Ben-Zion Taber, retired in 1990 (he passed away last year at the age of 94). “People don’t want to get old. They don’t want to be on the bad side of the ledger.”
As for up-and-coming doctors and public health professionals? Taber said more incentives and attention need to be given to encourage young professionals to engage in geriatric practice and elder care.
“The smallest amount of [health professionals] choose it as a concentration,” she said. “We’ve brainwashed them into believing [older people] are terrible people. They don’t go into geriatrics. If (older people) people get sick, they go to an internist who doesn’t know (geriatric medicine). You know, it’s very time-consuming.”
Taber has been advocating for older individuals for 20 years. Getting people to confront and accept age – the concept of it, the reality of it – and improve the quality of life for older people is what drives her.
“Aging to me … is part of the natural life cycle,” she said. “It’s like a flower in a garden; it buds, it blooms, it ages, it dies. We’re like a garden, or every other living thing. How you get there is going to be different, but it can be a natural process. There’s no cure. It’s one of the things people refuse to accept.”
For a while, Taber was a member of the El Paso Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Aging, but that body was disbanded in 2006, she said, the disappointment clear in her voice. Activities for seniors in El Paso are now clustered in the Rio Grande Agency on Aging, part of a statewide network spread throughout Texas. “There’s not much planning for the future, but some day-to-day practical solutions for low-income people with health needs and a collection of senior centers for any seniors looking for daytime activities – which have been very limited since COVID, of course,” she said. “The city seems to have lost interest – mainly since there’s no money for this unglamorous topic.”
Taber is frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of services for older individuals in El Paso and elsewhere, whether it be limited transportation options, a shortage of mental health programs or a lack of safe and suitable housing. She likens senior assisted living facilities to “boxes” and “prisons.” And she is hardly shy about sharing her thoughts with local officials.
Despite her advanced age, Taber isn’t slowing down. A former food writer for the El Paso Times, she still writes stories about food, travel – and aging, of course – for El Paso Inc., a weekly news journal that also publishes a quarterly magazine. She stays active and enjoys playing the piano.
It was a love of music that led Taber to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education from New York University when she was younger. She spent years as a professional accompanist to dance troupes, singers and theater companies.
But it was her passionate nature and skill in communicating with others that eventually led her to public health and Yale. A native of the Bronx borough of New York City, Taber (then known as Ruth Migdal) worked as a receptionist for what is now the Montefiore Medical Center. Some of the hospital’s administrators – a few of them Yale alumni – saw the way she engaged with people and suggested she pursue a degree in public health. One of them sent a letter to Yale’s then-Public Health Chair Ira V. Hiscock, M.A., Sc.D., M.P.H., and soon she found herself sitting across from him.
Despite her unorthodox background for someone going into the field of public health and the fact that she had never taken any science or biology classes as an undergraduate, Taber convinced Hiscock to give her a chance, agreeing to take summer biology courses at Columbia University to help her prepare.
She wrote her Yale thesis – naturally – on communication and persuasion.
Whether she’s addressing the challenges of aging or helping eradicate the scourge of disease, to Taber, the most important factor in every campaign is getting the word out. “Getting the message out is more important than anything,” she said. “It could be the most important thing in the world, but if you can’t get the message across, what are you doing?”
Elvis couldn’t have said it any better.