His death saved many other lives
Jeff Hall, the defender whose passing helped tackle polio
The night before an away game against Portsmouth in March 1959, Birmingham City full-back Jeff Hall complained to his teammates about having difficulty swallowing.
While staying at the Southsea Hotel, doctors decided his symptoms were nothing more than a cold and the next day he played.
There was nothing particularly significant about the game – a 1-1 draw – with the only matter of concern being that Hall’s Birmingham side had dropped points against a team who hadn’t won a league match in months and seemed certain to be relegated.
“Jeff played well and I didn’t notice anything different about him at all,” said Ron Newman, Portsmouth’s left midfielder.
“He was quiet all through the game but then he usually is,” Newman said. “I shook hands with him as we left the field and said: ‘Well done.’
“He just said: ‘Hard luck – I guess you needed those points pretty badly.’”
Newman would turn out to be the last opponent Hall was ever given the task of keeping at bay.
Dennis Shaw, who covered the game, wrote in his autobiography A Game of Three Halves that, after the match he saw Hall around the dressing rooms: “looking terrible, pale-faced, watery-eyed, exhausted.
“Having been told we were travelling in a private car he begged a lift with us, because he’d apparently got the flu, and we could get him home quicker than the team coach.”
Two days after making what was his 227th league appearance, the Birmingham City defender was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with polio. He was only 29-yeard-old.
Polio, the highly infectious virus which spreads from the intestines, first attacks the brain and spinal cord, and can then cause paralysis, muscle wastage and death, was a serious public health risk in the 1950s. Over 45,000 cases were recorded during the decade.
The term “polio season” was common parlance, meaning a surge of cases into the thousands.
At the time a vaccination against polio was available – alongside the knowledge that strenuous exercise helped increase the rate of which the disease could spread around the host’s body.
Despite Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine breakthrough, introduced to the UK in 1956, the general public were reticent towards it, and uptake of the vaccine was low, with people sceptical of earlier failed trials in America.
By 1958, only 53% of children in England and Wales who were eligible for inoculation had received the vaccine.
In the middle of that year the vaccine was for the first time offered to those aged between 18 and 26 years but in spite of 6,250,000 British adults suddenly eligible to be vaccinated, only 13,324 had received the two necessary injections, and 26,947 had received just one.
Following Hall’s diagnosis, his teammates, Portsmouth players and other recent opponents, as well as team and hotel staff were advised to self-quarantine and rest, while the nation held its breath.
As expected, the strenuous exercise had rapidly advanced Hall’s condition.
National papers gave daily updates on his condition on the player that had represented his country on the international stage 17 times – only once being on the losing side.
“There has possibly been some slight improvement though his condition still gives rise to acute anxiety,” wrote one on March 25.
“He has had a better day and his strength is being maintained,” followed the next day.
“He has had another restful night but his general condition is critical,” wrote another on March 29.
The last update came on April 1: “He has had a fair day and is maintaining his strength.”
And then they the stopped.
On 4 April, the multiple operations and iron lung upon which he was relying to breathe had failed, and Hall was pronounced dead.
At his funeral, Rev H B Marlow told a packed congregation of his hope that Hall’s death might raise awareness of polio. “It may well be that his death will save many other lives,” he said wishfully, in the hope of being proved right. And so he was.
With the news the heart-warming testimonies rolled in. The Birmingham Post described him as “one of Blues’ most skilful and popular players who harnessed a keen intelligence to natural footballing ability to make a mark of considerable distinction on the game.”
The Telegraph simply led with: “The Jeff Halls of soccer do not often pass away.”
Soon after news of his illness and subsequent death spread, local public health departments reported a significant increase in demand for the vaccination.
Following a public outcry from Hall’s widow Dawn, on the Saturday following Hall’s death, a message from the Ministry of Health was read out at 400 clubs across the country.
“Hall’s death brings home to us sharply and sadly that polio can strike down even the fittest among us,” said Derek Walker-Smith, minister of health, whose message was read before play got under way.
“Even when not fatal, it can cripple for life. So I appeal to all under 26, strongly and sincerely, be sure to get your polio vaccination. Don’t delay, do it soon.”
Want of the vaccine soon exceeded available supplies. And by 22 April, the BBC reported that inoculations had been suspended at various locations due to “unprecedented demand”.
The turnout to receive the vaccine was so great that emergency supplies had to be flown in from the US to cover shortages in many cities across the UK.
Schoolchildren were marched class-by-class to their local clinics to take Jonas Salk’s vaccine, while emergency clinics were set up across Britain as polio dominated the headlines and newsreels.
Dawn Hall would go on to dedicate her life to spreading awareness to the disease. “I didn’t want Jeff’s death to be in vain and I certainly didn’t want anyone else to go through the same ordeal,” she said.
With thanks to her tireless crusade in increasing awareness of polio vaccinations, it wasn’t.
There had been 3,712 cases of polio in 1955 but by 1963 this had fallen to 39. There hasn’t been a confirmed case of polio in the UK since 1984.
As the Daily Express wrote: “It took the death of one footballer to get the typists and secretaries, clerks, schoolboys and the rock’n’roll generation pouring into the clinics.”
Inadvertently, Hall helped spark a heightened level of awareness to the dangers of polio, and saved many thousands of lives in the process.