On April 12, 1955, Oveta Culp Hobby, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), signed the first licenses to allow the manufacture and distribution of the polio vaccine.
“It’s a great day,” she said. “It’s a wonderful day for the whole world. It’s a history-making day!”
After enormous public pressure and months of trials, a solution to a deadly disease would be available to the American people.
As recounted in “The Governor and the Colonel,” Don Carleton’s dual biography of Oveta and Will Hobby, the triumphant certification of the polio vaccine was quickly followed by the challenges of its distribution. As the head of HEW, Oveta had the legal responsibility for certifying the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and for ensuring that it be distributed fairly.
How it was to be distributed, however, was an open question. Her rigid belief that the vaccination program should be managed by the private sector and the states pulled her into a heated and emotional controversy that was tangled in this country’s never-ending fear of socialized medicine. It was the most trying and difficult public policy issue she faced in her long career.
A deadly virus, an outcry for a vaccine, and the challenges of its distribution in the face of resistance to socialized medicine are all themes as familiar in the face of COVID-19 as they were to Americans in the 1950s. And as Carleton chronicles throughout “The Governor and the Colonel,” it is just one example of how the challenges faced by both Will and Oveta during their careers as public servants persist today.
William P. “Will” Hobby Sr. and Oveta Culp Hobby were one of the most influential couples in Texas history. Both were major public figures. He served as governor of Texas. She was the first commander of the Women’s Army Corps and later was the second woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Together, they built a pioneering media empire centered on the Houston Post and their broadcast properties, and they played significant roles in the transformation of Houston into one of the largest cities in the United States. From our country’s deeply embedded racism to ideologically pitched battles over how history should be taught to public health crises, the problems faced by the Hobbys provide context for a wide range of current issues.
As governor of Texas, Will also had to contend with a lethal virus. The influenza epidemic — the so-called “Spanish” Flu of 1918-19 — occurred during his tenure as governor. He contracted the flu in the fall of 1918 and was so dangerously ill that rumors spread that he was expected to die. He recovered, but only after a difficult battle with the disease.
As secretary of HEW, Oveta dealt with two significant issues that remain with us today: welfare entitlements and national health insurance. She led the difficult but successful fight to expand Social Security coverage to farmers and other workers who had been left out of the original legislation. She led the failed effort to establish federal funding to cover any losses incurred by private insurance companies that agreed to provide health insurance to high-risk individuals at affordable cost. It was a complex plan that nearly 60 years later provided a basis for the Affordable Care Act.
Conflict over our border with Mexico is another challenge that persists today. That was especially critical during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, which included the last three years of Will’s gubernatorial service. Cross-border outlawry and violence — including law enforcement abuses committed by Texas Rangers — were among the most difficult problems he faced.
As a woman in a position of power, Oveta faced rampant sexist attitudes throughout her career. She was literally the first woman to officially serve in the U. S. Army, commanding the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) during World War II. She was forced to deal with sexist behavior by male politicians, military officers and journalists. Even her Army rank was dictated by sexism. Although the size of her command qualified her to be a general officer, the southern delegation in Congress refused to allow her a higher rank than colonel.
History calls on us to look to the past for an awareness of how many of the problems we face now are quite similar to those face by our forebears, and allows us to examine why their attempts to solve those problems failed or succeeded. That knowledge can guide our efforts to resolve current problems.