Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
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Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
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Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion


My name is virus poliomyelitis.
I cause a disease which you call infantile paralysis.

I consider myself quite an artist -- sort of a sculptor.
I specialize in the grotesques, twisting and deforming human bodies.

That's why I'm called "The Crippler." 1

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People didn't know how polio was spread, but they did know that most diseases were spread from person to person.  When polio came to town, isolation was the name of the game.  Events were cancelled, children were confined to their homes.   During the hottest days of summer, pools were closed.  Schools and camps were shut down.  Movie theatres were closed on order of the health authorities.   Drinking fountains were abandoned.  Draft inductions were suspended.  That worked for influenza and plague and a host of other diseases, but polio did not respond.2

In 1930, a Connecticut outbreak caused Wesleyan University to cancel its football season.  Almost 150 students dropped out of school.  Schools in Topeka, Kansas, were closed.  Public meetings were banned in Los Angeles.

In 1931, there was another epidemic in New York.

In 1932, there were epidemics in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Los Angeles.  Los Angeles' epidemic was so bad that the city's public health services began to break down.  Ambulances and stretchers blocked the streets in front of the county hospital, where frightened hospital workers turned people away.

Los Angeles polio ward c. 1950
Los Angeles County Hospital polio ward c. 1950.
Photo courtesy Virtual Museum of the Iron Lung

In 1935, Boston got an epidemic.  The entire city of Annapolis, Maryland was quarantined.  The National Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia was cancelled.

In 1936, Tulsa, Oklahoma was quarantined.  Chicago suffered a large epidemic, too.  Alabama churches and resorts were closed.

In 1939, some victims of bulbar polio had survived for ten years in iron lungs.  That same year, a woman gave birth in an iron lung.3

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath;
A traveler betwixt life and death.

-William Wordsworth

It must have been profoundly difficult in that first quarter-century of polio.  How helpless parents must have felt to know that there was this killer that could come each summer, and that nothing they could do could safeguard their children.  Every sniffle, every cold, every muscle cramp, every temper tantrum that a child exhibited in the long, hot days of summer and early autumn were potential symptoms of polio.  How long could a family show good spirits in front of a child confined to an iron lung, or later, during the two or more years a child might spend in rehabilitative therapy.

Polio was never the worst disease in the nation.  Many other contemporary diseases killed more.  But polio seemed to go after the innocent children, and it left such pathetic reminders of its passage.  It was an affront to American technological and medical prowess and a denial of our new affluence and national strength.  It had to be conquered, and the sooner the better. 

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Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  Seavey, Nina Gilden (writer and director).  "A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America."  Oregon Public Broadcasting.  1998.

2.  Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.  p. 35.

3.  idem.  p. 39.