Mary Poppins’ “A Spoonful of Sugar” was inspired by the polio vaccine.

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"Mary Poppins" scene, 1964
Allstar Picture Library Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo

When inspiration strikes, you have to just go with it — no matter how unexpected the circumstances. Few knew that better than Robert B. Sherman, who, along with his brother Richard, made up one of the best-known songwriting duos in Hollywood history. In addition to The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, and other Disney classics, they collaborated on 1964’s Mary Poppins — including the song “A Spoonful of Sugar,” which was inspired by the polio vaccine. This was recounted by Robert’s son Jeffrey, who in late 2020 shared his story of receiving the vaccine as a child. When asked whether it hurt, Jeffrey told his father, “They put it on a sugar cube and you just ate it. He stared at me, then went to the phone and called my uncle Dick.”

Robert recalled the incident similarly: “I realized at the moment that I had the spark of a winning song,” he wrote in his autobiography Moose: Chapters From My Life. “I couldn’t sleep all night. The lyric mulled around in my mind. The next day, at work, I showed up half an hour earlier than usual so that I could pop the idea on my brother.” Created by virologist Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine (originally administered as a shot) was released in 1955, after which Salk was hailed as a miracle worker and refused to patent it. An oral vaccine, the type Jeffrey Sherman received, was developed later by biomedical scientist Albert Sabin. Within 25 years, the polio vaccine eliminated transmission of the disease in the United States.

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