The Scourge of
Polio and Polio Revisited: Overview
Maxine Steele and her
husband live in the nursing wing of the Community Memorial Health Center in Hartley. They were
married in 1940 and lived in Sutherland for 60 years and will celebrate their
67th anniversary in August 2007. Maxine worked for a small town weekly
newspaper for 20 years. Throughout the years she has written articles
about polio that were published in area newspapers, a column "It Seems to
Me" by MGS, and for the Sioux City Journal. She also wrote a
story for the book "My Folks and the Family Farm."
In the 1940s and 1950s the incidence of polio reached epidemic proportions
in the U.S.,
disabling and killing thousands.
Polio has been known to the world since the time of ancient Egypt
and appeared periodically and was greatly feared as a major cause of crippling
in infants and young children
It was such a frightening disease because no one knew what caused it or how
to treat it. Some thought it was a bacterial infection brought on by unsanitary
living conditions as there were many cases in areas where people were crowded
together and sanitation was often neglected. On the other hand, many cases were
in rural areas where there were wide-open spaces.
Another theory was that polio was spread by swimming in lakes or pools, so
parents kept their children away from water. Other theories now seem a trifle
ridiculous -- spread by sharks, poisonous gasses or pigs.
Can you imagine how worried parents were during the epidemics of the 40s and
50s? Discovery in 1931 found three distinct strains of polio: non-paralytic,
which just seemed like flu with fever, chills, aches and it stopped there.
Bulbar affected the lungs and breathing. The paralytic form was readily
recognized. It was terrifying to know your child might awake at night with
incredible pain; legs and/or arms become weak, muscles lost strength and
refused to work.
After a large outbreak of polio in 1916, attempts to control the spread,
isolation and quarantine were tried. Though ineffective quarantine caused a
stigma on the families affected and only added to the misery and fear of the
disease. It was completely unpredictable. It could affect only one child in a
family or neighborhood, or two, three or more in one family would get it.
The fear was so great that some ministers refused to have a church funeral
for a polio death, and others would not officiate a service for the bereaved
In an effort to help them, polio victims were taken from their families,
hospitalized, kept in isolation for months, or sometimes years. Survivors tell
of treatments in the hospital. Some were put in heavy braces to immobilize the
limb, another was kept on a frame made of canvas, strapped across a metal bar,
or Toronto splints which were leather covered splints that kept the knees
spread apart. Braces were made of metal and leather, often weighing 10-15
The iron lung had to be specially terrifying to children. They tell of the
constant noise in the wards. As one wryly remarked, it sort of masked the
sounds of the crying.
A nurse from Australia, Sister Kenny, arrived in San Francisco in April
1940. Nurses in Australia were called “Sisters,” but there was much controversy
about her and her methods, as she had no formal training nor professional
degree, so doctors would not try her methods. And on top of that, she was a
female so the doctors were decidedly against her.
They ridiculed her looks, her clothing and even her hat! She was a large
woman who wore black clothes, had a big black hat and wore black stockings that
older women wore in those days. From San Francisco, she went to New York City,
where she was ignored. Deciding she would probably return to Australia, she
stopped in Chicago, then at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where they referred
her to Minneapolis where there were many acute cases.
Her methods of treatment involved massage, exercises and wrapping limbs with
hot compresses to reduce muscle spasms and pain. Survivors today still recall
the smell of the hot wool compresses she used to treat them.
Isn't it ironic that the doctors who were so supercilious and haughty would
never listen to a mere female and yet her methods of treatment have formed the
basis of treatment that has lasted and been used ever since.
Doctors and scientists were frantically working to find a vaccine to prevent
polio. The names we know best are Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Both were
Russian Jews and there was a lot of enmity between them, as among the different
organizations sponsoring their work. Huge egos got in the way and there was
considerable scientific and political infighting.
As perfected in the mid-50s, Salk's vaccine used a series of injections,
Sabin's in 1960 could be taken orally, as many of you remember getting the
sugar cubes, when mass inoculations were held in schools. Salk's vaccine used a
killed virus and Sabin's was a live virus. It has been found that a small
percentage of people will develop polio from the live virus, so today the
preferred method is to have the injections first, then oral to complete the
It is hoped that polio can be eradicated completely if everyone gets
vaccinated and that polio outbreaks will be only a bad memory.
But wait; many of us who had polio now have post-polio syndrome, or the late
effects of polio. We recuperated up to a certain point and had a somewhat
normal life. Then 20 to 30 years later the onset of debilitating fatigue,
muscle and joint pain, weakness, cold intolerance, cramps begin slowly
increasing in muscles previously involved and others not remembered as having
Doctors were not aware that what was happening was connected to former
polio. But in about the mid-1980s they began to connect these collective
symptoms with those who had polio. Research has been slow because grant money
is hard to obtain. The general attitude is is that in about 30 years we'll all
be dead, so why work on a project that will conclude naturally.
There is no magic pill to cure post-polio syndrome. Management must include
treating those aspects that can be changed, reordering your priorities and
letting someone help you, which is hard to do after trying for years to keep up
Activities need to be monitored to avoid excessive fatigue, rest periods
must be a priority. Many of us have had to return to braces and/or using canes,
crutches or wheelchairs, which in today's politically correct culture are called