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HISTORY LIVES: Gladys Nickleby Nelson


Gladys Nickleby Nelson (1921-2003) earned degrees from Mercy Douglass School of Nursing (now part of the University of Pennsylvania), West Chester University, and Trenton State College. A wife, mother of three daughters, and a registered nurse, she was hired as a part-time school nurse in June 1953, becoming the first African-American employed by the Doylestown Borough School System.

“During the 1950’s people lived in fear that their children might contract infantile paralysis, better known as polio. In 1952 alone there were nearly 58,000 cases reported in the US that left over 3,000 dead and more than 21,000 with some form of paralysis — parents were eager for scientists to find a cure.” In 1955, Nurse Nelson “opened the first polio immunization clinic in the United States.”

According to her daughter, Nancy Nelson, “the polio clinic was the idea of Dr. Salk who was a friend of Dr. James Work, the president of The National Farm School (now Delaware Valley University). Dr. Work contacted the school board which in turn contacted Mrs. Marian Francofiera, principal of the school at Broad and East Court streets. My mother spearheaded the setup of the clinic, coordinating nurses, doctors and community volunteers to help. It was the first organized and successful polio inoculation clinic. Dr. Salk was so pleased with Nurse Nelson’s efficiency that he asked her to establish other clinics. The national campaign radiated from her.” Between 1955 and 1962, medics administered 400 million doses of the Salk vaccine at thousands of clinics patterned after the Doylestown facility. Cases of polio began a steep decline — dipping from 14,647 in 1955 to less than 100 per year in the 1960s.

After a 32-year career, most of which was spent as a school nurse in the Central Bucks School District, Gladys Nelson retired in 1983.

Source: Archives of Doylestown Historical Society.

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