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Dial 1-800-history

June 2023
2min read

The canvas upon which I wielded my brush with history has grown to epic proportions and shows no sign, at all, of diminishing in size.

In the 1950s I ventured into the not-for-profit health-agency field, and in 1962 I became Senior Public Health Advisor and Program Coordinator of the United States Public Health Service-sponsored Immunization Program with the City of New York, Department of Health and Hospitals.

The ultimate goal of the program was to determine the immunization levels of all pre-school-age children in the five boroughs of New York City and then to increase those levels to a standard acceptable to both the City of New York and to the U.S. Public Health Service.

As the immunization levels for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio rose in New York City, the Public Health Service decided to include a measles vaccine in the program.

Because of the varied ethnic population in New York City, all of my public-service announcements were multilingual: English, Spanish, and Chinese. With the help of New York City’s Transit Authority and the city’s mass media, I was able to place car cards in subway cars, buses, and stations; the same message—“One Shot and Measles Bites the Dust”—went on the back of most of the cabs in New York City as well as in newspapers, magazines, and the city’s radio and TV media.

But there was a flaw somewhere—a weekly check of the ninety-seven child health stations in the city told the story. Parents were not bringing their kids in for the measles vaccine—I wasn’t getting the message across. The vaccine was free, and there wasn’t any charge for the doctors’ services at child health stations, but still the vaccine was sitting on shelves; it wasn’t getting into kids.

One late-spring afternoon while I was riding home from my Manhattan office to Keyport, New Jersey, mulling the word measles over and under and back and forth, a nubbin of an idea came to mind; I could hardly wait to get home and work it out.

And work it out, I did. Sitting at the kitchen table with the telephone in front of me, I listed the numbers on the dial that corresponded to the word measles —632-7537.

Eureka.

Returning to work the next day I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. It took only one or two meetings with representatives of New York Telephone to set up the lines. They had their doubts; they didn’t think it would work, but they were willing to go along with the idea provided the program paid for the service of changing existing telephone lines.

I assured them the program would pay, and the first dial-a-word promotion became operative.

All of my P.R. programs changed overnight. The word got out to all media. “Want information on where to get a measles shot for your kid? Just dial MEASLES on your phone!”

A bank of telephones with taped messages in English, Spanish, and Chinese was set up in the program offices, and the phones started ringing—day and night; the measles vaccine started moving. Measles immunizations in the five boroughs skyrocketed, and at least for that generation—back in the sixties—the disease surely did bite the dust.

So, now, thirty years later, I smile every time I see an ad on the tube suggesting that viewers just call FINE-4WD for Range Rover or 944-RIDX for a septic-tank problem or FOR-CARS for Thrifty Rental or THE-TEST for Oldsmobile or, or, or …

I sometimes wonder wistfully how things would be if I’d been able to copyright the idea.

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