Spoonful of Sugar: How Mary Poppins contributed to the Covid vaccine story

Julie Andrews’s song was inspired by a polio immunisation, according to its writer’s son

Mary Poppins: Julie Andrews in the 1964 film. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty

Mary Poppins: Julie Andrews in the 1964 film. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty

 

One of Walt Disney’s most popular fictional characters has made an indirect contribution to the conversation surrounding the incoming vaccine for Covid-19. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” Mary Poppins warbled in the timeless 1964 film. It seems the song had its origins in the vaccination campaign against polio. Jeffrey Sherman, a son and nephew of the Sherman brothers – renowned composers of every second Disney classic – recalled the story on his Facebook page.

“When I was a kid, they rolled out a vaccine for polio. We were given it at school on a sugar cube,” Sherman recalled. “I went home and my dad, who was working on Mary Poppins, asked how my day was.”

Unbeknown to Jeffrey, Robert B Sherman, his father, and Richard M Sherman, his uncle, had just heard that Julie Andrews – later to win an Oscar for the lead role – was unhappy with Through the Eyes of Love, their favourite song from the initial score, and they were desperately trying to conjure up a replacement.

“Dad asked me how my day was and I told him about getting the polio vaccine at school,” Sherman continued. “I was known for rejecting the booster shots at my doctors’ office and running away. He said: ‘Didn’t it hurt?’ I told him 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.”

The boys sat down and wrote A Spoonful of Sugar.

“It’s my little corner of film music history, I suppose,” Sherman, himself a writer and director, mused.

Elsewhere, Disney will be less happy about the controversy bubbling around Letitia Wright. The Guyanese-British actor, a breakout star from Black Panther, became the centre of an online scuffle after sharing a video from On the Table, a YouTube discussion group, questioning the worth of vaccinations. “I don’t understand vaccines medically, but I’ve always been a little bit of a sceptic of them,” Tomi Arayomi, the presenter, explained during a rambling message that also noted his disbelief in evolution.

Wright, appearing currently in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed TV anthology Small Axe, responded to the furious kickback with the “asking questions” and “cancelled” strategies. “if you don’t conform to popular opinions. but ask questions and think for yourself....you get cancelled,” she later tweeted.

Roxane Gay, the distinguished African-American writer, was among those taking issue with that argument. “Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean you’re right,” Gay replied. “And you aren’t cancelled. But damn. Promoting anti-vaccine propaganda and shrouding it in intellectual curiosity is asinine. And dangerous.”

Don Cheadle, Wright’s costar from The Avengers, also joined in the conversation. “just scrolled through. hot garbage,” Cheadle tweeted about the video. “every time i stopped and listened, he and everything he said sounded crazy and fkkkd up. i would never defend anybody posting this. but i still won’t throw her away over it. the rest i’ll take off twitter. had no idea.”

There will, no doubt, be more such controversy as the vaccine is distributed. Jeffrey Sherman was, however, spreading only positive vibrations.

“Trust the doctors,” he wrote. “When the vaccine for Covid comes out, get it. We are all codependent on each other in this pandemic. Trust science and doctors and epidemiologists.”

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