Category: polio

When Polio Was Our Enemy (Part 4)

The scourge of polio (or poliomyelitis) pales when compared to Covid-19 or the Flu Pandemic of 1918, primarily because of the relentless spread of both diseases.

Patients in iron lungs

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the flu in 1918. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with about 675,000 of those deaths occurring in the United States.

As I write this, the current number of Covid-19 cases in the United States is 10.4 million, with 250,000 deaths. Worldwide cases stand at 51.6 million cases and 1.28 million deaths.

And they tell us the worst is yet to come.

Still, Polio was a formidable enemy:

In just the United States in 1952 alone, over 50,000 children were infected with the virus; 21 thousand were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died.

The paralysis was not limited to a child’s legs. If a patient’s breathing pump muscles were paralyzed, they were placed in an “iron lung” – a sealed ventilator – that breathed for them. Only a child’s head was outside the long tube. If a child was lucky, like the boy on my street, they would eventually recover and not need the iron lung anymore. The unlucky children could spend years in them.

For lucky children like me, though, help was on the way.

When Polio Was the Enemy (Part 2)

A little history –

It might seem like we are living in unprecedented times, and I do have to admit that this gumbo of the pandemic, politics, and protests makes for a memorable timestamp in history.

I think it is important to understand that while Covid-19 is unique, our situation is not. The battle of germs vs. humans has been waged for as long as there has been, well, germs and humans.


When the first Europeans came to the Americas, they brought horses and weapons unknown to the indigenous peoples but that was not what decimated the native population. No, what killed so many of the native population – up to 20 million people – was something else that the Europeans unwittingly brought with them: Smallpox. Because they had seen the disease before, they had some immunity to it, but the natives did not. It is estimated that up to 95% of the native population – up to 20 million people – perished from smallpox within three generations.

It took until 1796 for the first successful smallpox vaccine to be developed. Today, smallpox has been eradicated although, according to the National Institute of Health, “small quantities of smallpox virus officially still exist in two research laboratories in Atlanta, Georgia, and in Russia.” (Mull that thought over.)


Egypian stele (1403-1365) BC depicting a man with a withered leg

Although people of my generation may have thought that our experience with polio was “our” epidemic, polio is thought to have existed from at least 1580 B.C. However, It took until the mid-nineteenth century that a doctor finally determined that polio may be contagious. And another 100 years until I and my classmates lined up for the first polio vaccinations.

When Polio Was the Enemy

1. Introduction

As we all wait for the coronavirus pandemic to somehow end, I have been thinking about the epidemic that marked my childhood in the mid-twentieth century. In many ways, it reminds me of our current situation with covid-19.

Our enemy was the poliomyelitis virus or “polio.”

Polio was certainly not unique to my generation. There is evidence it existed thousands of years ago, and it still exists today in a few countries.

During the late 1940s and 50s, polio was particularly aggressive and death rates spiked. A child could wake up feeling fine and fall ill during the day. If the virus attacked their spinal cord, they could be paralyzed.

During the summer months, parents, including mine, were especially reluctant to let their child go outside for fear that they would contract polio.

They had reason to fear. There were four children in our neighborhood stricken with polio: a girl and a boy on our street, another girl on the next block, and another girl who lived a few blocks from our home. Each of the girls had to use a leg brace to support their withered legs; the boy spent time in an iron lung until he recovered enough strength to breathe on his own.

Because no one knew what caused it, local governments would make educated guesses in ways to mitigate the disease: close swimming pools or spray for mosquitos, just in case. (One cringe-worthy photograph shows young children gathered in the bed of a pickup truck to watch a man spray DDT across a field.)

I would like to tell you the story of polio in one Ohio town: how the stories were covered, how the March of Dimes became an important fund-raising tool, how the race to develop a safe vaccine came to fruition, and how my classmates and I participated in the first mass inoculation program in the country.

Fortunately, over a hundred years’ worth of my hometown newspaper’s daily editions are available online to refresh my memory.