Dolly Parton Followed in Elvis Presley’s Footsteps with Her COVID-19 Vaccine

Country singer and American icon Dolly Parton is a national treasure for many reasons. But the 75-year-old philanthropist’s recent campaign to promote the eradication of the coronavirus pandemic by both partially funding and publicly receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine just might take the cake.

This isn’t the first time a celebrity has promoted public health with an on-screen vaccination, however. Back in the 1950s, Elvis Presley did the same for the polio epidemic by getting vaccinated on The Ed Sullivan Show. Epidemiologists, clinicians, and public health experts hope that Parton’s latest efforts to combat COVID-19 will have a similar effect in terms of mainstream adoption.

Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccination from Leona Baumgartner and Harold Fuerst at CBS Studio 50 in New York City before 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1956
Elvis Presley receiving a polio vaccination from Leona Baumgartner and Harold Fuerst at CBS Studio 50 in New York City | Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Dolly Parton donated $1 million to COVID-19 research at Vanderbilt

Parton’s fans know that she has a long, storied history of philanthropic efforts. From her extensive work to improve the local economy in her childhood home of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee to her promotion of global childhood literacy through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the country music legend has always made generosity a priority.

Still, even diehard fans of the “9 to 5” and “I Will Always Love You” singer were surprised to see her name crop up on a list of financial supporters for the Moderna vaccine in a New England Journal of Medicine report in Nov. 2020. According to NPR, Mark Denison, the director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University, said Parton donated $1 million to COVID-19 research that helped to test the vaccine.

Parton told The Associated Press in February that she wanted to wait her turn to get the vaccine, despite the fact that she had donated to its development.

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Parton got a ‘dose of her own medicine’ with the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday

On Mar. 2, she finally got her chance. Dr. Naji Abumrad gave Parton a “dose of her own medicine,” as she joked on Twitter, at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

The songwriter and entrepreneur shared a video on social media in which she encouraged others to get the COVID-19 vaccine as well. In a parody of her famous song “Jolene,” Parton sang, “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine/I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate/Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine/’cause once you’re dead then that’s a bit too late.”

“I’ve been waiting a while,” she said in the video. “I’m old enough to get it, and I’m smart enough to get it.” Parton went on to urge viewers not to be a “chicken squat” and to get the vaccine themselves at their earliest opportunity.

Dolly Parton poses with award backstage during the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 2, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee
Dolly Parton poses with award backstage during the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tennessee | John Shearer/WireImage

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Elvis Presley was recruited to allay the public’s fears about the polio vaccine

Parton’s live coronavirus vaccination echoed Presley’s similar efforts to promote public health amid the polio epidemic. In the second half of the 20th century, polio was a leading cause of death and serious health issues in the U.S.

The CDC reports that 15,000 people were paralyzed by polio each year, and thousands of children and teens died from polio complications. Dr. Jonas Salk, along with a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, developed an effective polio vaccine by 1953.

Still, young people were reluctant to get the vaccine, due to widespread apathy as well as skepticism about its safety. Public health officials knew they had to do something big to get the public’s attention. And who better to promote a public health measure among teens than the King of Rock and Roll himself?

Elvis Presley getting the polio vaccine from two clinicians in 1956 before his performance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show'
Elvis Presley getting the polio vaccine | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

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Vaccination rates skyrocketed after Presley’s vaccine on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

Presley, who was already famous for hits like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” agreed to get the shot on live TV in a display of confidence in the medical profession. Ed Sullivan of The Ed Sullivan Show teamed up with Presley, who was vaccinated before his live performance on Oct. 28, 1956.

Photos of Presley getting the jab from Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst and the City Commissioner of Health, Leona Baumgartner, immediately hit every major newspaper. The King’s vaccination spurred many teens and young adults to follow in his footsteps.

According to History Daily, polio immunization rates among teens and young adults skyrocketed from a mere 0.6% to a whopping 80%. In turn, polio rates declined sharply in the 1960s, and the virus was considered virtually eradicated by 1979. Let’s hope that Parton’s promotion of the COVID-19 vaccine can achieve a similar effect.