When Polio Strikes!

Poliomyelitis was a fearful part of American culture for most of the twentieth century. Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century and lasting through the late fifties, the United States experienced widespread yearly polio epidemics that reached every part of the population. At first, the disease appeared to exist in poor and overcrowded areas, but before long it was a threat to everyone, regardless of race, class, or location. In a very unusual case, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio at a later age and then used his presidential powers to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

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Publication #51 from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. When polio strikes...helpful hints for everyone. (1944)

In its full-blown form, poliomyelitis is identified as an acute infectious disease caused by the poliovirus and characterized by fever, motor paralysis, and atrophy of skeletal muscles often with permanent disability and deformity and marked by inflammation of nerve cells in the anterior gray matter in each lateral half of the spinal cord—called also infantile paralysis.16

The disease-transferring agent, poliovirus, is spread mostly through contact with an already infected person. In many cases, the poliovirus enters through the mouth and then implants itself in the tissues of the alimentary tract. At this point, the body's natural defense mechanisms usually combat the poliovirus, prevent further spread through developed immunity, and lead to complete recovery from the infection.

For those infected whose bodies do not successfully combat the poliovirus, the outcome is quite different. In these cases the sufferers typically experience neck and back stiffness and muscle weakness. These symptoms are a result of the destruction of the central nervous system, specifically of the motor nerve cells in the gray matter of the spinal cord. The destruction of these cells is usually permanent and induces paralysis.17

Many Americans who grew up during the epidemic years recall the imminent threat of the summer epidemic. In an almost clocklike manner, polio epidemics returned nearly every summer during this period.

During the period of 1941 to 1945, there were less than 100 cases of polio reported during the months of January through June. Between June and September, the cases regularly increased by a factor of 3, 6, 10, or even 17. As reported by the United States Public Health Service, the summer of 1944 experienced over 1,600 reported cases of polio. Despite the peak of the forties and fifties, the United States had been seriously dealing with polio outbreaks since around 1915.

Between 1915 and 1945, not a single year had fewer than 1,500 cases reported. In more than half of those 31 years, there were over 5,000 cases reported. Three of the years had over 15,000, and a frightening 27,363 cases were accounted for in 1916 alone. The rate of death during this period, as attributed to poliomyelitis, ranged from 487 (1938) to 7,179 (1916) reported cases. The magnitude of these numbers caused a real fear among the population and prompted a serious effort to combat the disease.18

Until the twenties, medical professionals had a limited variety of treatment options at their disposal for poliomyelitis patients. For example, in 1892 the revolutionary public health researcher, Dr. William Osler, concluded, No drugs have the slightest influence upon acute myelitis. The child should be put to bed and the affected limb or limbs wrapped in cotton.19

Many medical caretakers accepted this approach and practiced wrapping or an inactive treatment of putting the patient to bed. Patients suffering from severe poliomyelitis, particularly paralytic poliomyelitis, still required intensive assistance especially in breathing.20

The iron lung offered paralytic poliomyelitis patients the assistance they needed to survive. Many people from the generations around the polio epidemics remember images of hospital rooms filled with iron lungs. Although the University of Virginia Hospital did have several iron lungs on hand for emergency situations, it was never a polio center and never had rooms full of the respirators. When an iron lung was needed at the University Hospital, the patients were often given their own room to avoid disturbing other patients with the noisy machine.21