Polio: From Reign of Terror to Obscurity in One Generation

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Recently, I was recounting a childhood event in my life to my teenage grandchildren. I mentioned polio (paralytic poliomyelitis). “What’s polio?” asked the seventeen-year-old.

Wow—imagine that! To think this (mostly) childhood disease which terrorized U. S. parents for four epidemic-laden decades of the 20th century is unknown to today’s youth is almost unfathomable to someone like me who lived through that era. That there’s no reason for them to know about it is an amazing blessing.

It certainly wasn’t always like that. If you’re in the same boat as my grands, you may want to know there was a time when polio, a disease that’s been around since ancient times, was widespread in this country.

The U. S. experienced annual polio epidemics every summer between 1916 and 1955, with the worst outbreaks occurring in the 40s and 50s—the period of my childhood. Nineteen fifty-two was the peak year for the nation’s epidemic: 60,000 cases were reported. Three thousand victims died; 21,000 more were paralyzed.

Polio was, and is, a highly contagious, virus-caused disease which can be transmitted via contaminated water. That’s why public swimming pools were regularly closed during my childhood whenever a case was reported. Interestingly, most people who contracted polio never even knew it; they had no symptoms. For many others, symptoms were similar to the flu—a few days of high fever, sore throat, headache, abdominal distress. But for others . . .

My worst polio-associated image has always been the iron lung, that body-enveloping steel cylinder to which many polio victims were confined. Because polio attacked muscles, including those required for breathing, this mechanical breathing machine was the only survival hope for many. For some, like actress Mia Farrow, the iron lung was temporary, though it probably didn’t seem like it at the time.—she lived in one for eight months. For others, it was a life sentence. At least one victim was confined to an iron lung for more than forty years, until his death in 2003. 

Food and Drug Administration: iron lung ward, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, CA.

Public domain photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), identification number #6536.

Two of those terrorized mid-20th century parents were mine. When I awoke crying with a high fever in the middle of the night after a day of playing with other three-year-olds in a neighborhood mud puddle, they wasted no time rushing me to the hospital. I still retain the memory of being swooped up and cradled in my dad’s arms, tightly wrapped in a blanket. In my next remembered image, I was lying in a hospital bed, Daddy lying beside me, reading a Cornet magazine. I was terrified when I woke the next morning to find myself alone in that strange place. Mother arrived not long thereafter with a brand new pair of patent leather shoes for me to wear home. The diagnosis was tonsillitis. Their overreaction just shows how real the fear was.

Then came 1955. I was one of millions of reluctant kids dragged by our equally hopeful parents to stand in long, winding lines—in my case in the hot South Carolina summer sun—to get the brand new polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk. Hundreds of thousands had worked frantically to develop an effective vaccine, from scientists to test subjects to ordinary citizens raising funds for research and development.

This Pinterest photo was taken in Chicago in 1955. The line I stood in seemed every bit as long as we waited in the hot sun, dreading our fate: the first of a series of three shots. Later came the oral vaccine we took as a booster.

And just like that the epidemic was over. The residual effects, though, were not. Years later, a college classmate of mine wore leg braces and used crutches to get around campus. When I lived in Louisville, KY, in the 70s, three of my work colleagues, two of them wheelchair-bound, had contracted the disease in that city’s 1952 epidemic.

Some famous people who suffered from polio: Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Emmett Till; Jack Nicklaus; actors Alan Alda, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow; former Secretary of Defense and World Bank president Robert McNamara; ventriloquist (and voice of Tigger) Paul Winchell; artist Frida Kahlo; singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dinah Shore; NYC ballet soloist Tranquil Le Clercq; photographer Dorothea Lange; former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee; saxophonist David Sanborn; Olympic gold medalist (track and field) Wilma Rudolph; Tarzan portrayer and Olympic gold medalist (swimming) Johnny Weismuller; violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Even today, there’s no cure for polio. Survivors often have residual complications and can anticipate post-polio syndrome in later life—a return of weakening muscles and other issues. Our salvation is in prevention. And while polio is now virtually unheard of in the United States and most of the world thanks to global eradication efforts, the disease hasn’t yet been wiped out. Polio still exists in two or three countries in Asia and Africa and has, on occasion, been reintroduced into others. It wouldn’t take much for a resurgence to occur here. As long as it’s out there, I won’t be completely comforted.

And yet, I’m gleeful that my grandchildren, knowledgeable as they are, have no knowledge of polio, that they have no need to know. And ever thankful to the scientists and public servants who were, and are, committed to finding a way to curb this horrific scourge worldwide.






3 thoughts on “Polio: From Reign of Terror to Obscurity in One Generation

  1. Pingback: Big Changes – Living on the Diagonal

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