Tell us what you
remember of the impact of polio:
When my brothers and I were babies, living with our family in student
housing while my father attended dental school at the University
of Iowa, our babysitter was struck
with polio. I was too young to remember this, but my mother later told me that
one day I started screaming as if I were in terrible pain and got stiff. One of
my brothers and I were diagnosed as having light cases of polio; we had to wear
leg braces for awhile, and I was never as strong as other children my age, but
otherwise there were no lasting effects for us.
In 1954, my father had rejoined the Navy intending to have a career as a dental
officer. The family (my parents and four children ages 6 and under) moved to Camp
Pendleton, California. My
father contracted polio from one of his patients - one day he had a terrible
headache and the next he was completely paralyzed and in a respirator. My first
real memory is of my third birthday party, held in the hospital room next to
the respirator. My dad had a slanted mirror over his head so he could see out
into the room, and I remember the “portholes” on the sides of the respirator,
so that nurses could tend to him. Once during the year he was in the
respirator, the power went out and hospital personnel had to rush in a
generator to keep him breathing. After that year, he was gradually weaned from
the oxygen and flown back to Iowa City
where he underwent a year of physical therapy at the VA hospital. His therapist
was an African American, James May, who essentially gave him his life back. Mr.
May had to commute from Davenport
for several years because his family could not find housing in Iowa
City. My father eventually was able to breathe and
walk on his own; he lost the use of his right arm and had to train himself to
write left-handed, although that arm was weak also. He wore a large back brace
and arm braces for the rest of his life.
My mother, a very strong woman and a nurse, had to take care of four children,
bathe and dress my father, do all the driving, the housework, and the yard
work. My father went back to graduate school and got his masters and Ph.D. in
oral pathology. He dictated his thesis and dissertation into a Dictaphone.
After receiving his degrees, he joined the faculty in the College
of Dentistry, and several times was
named teacher of the year. There is now a scholarship in his name for dental
students from Iowa. Thirty-two
years after contacting polio my father succumbed to post-polio syndrome and
died at the age of 62.
reaction of your family and others you knew to the development of the vaccine:
The vaccine had been developed by the time my father contracted polio, but
was only being administered to children. I remember going to the University
of Iowa Field House with my
brothers to receive the vaccine in the form of pink sugar cubes.
General Comments :
One of the constants of my childhood was the experience of being out in
public with my family. My father was a rather shy man and people, young and
old, would stop and stare at him because of the braces he wore. Although I was
shy myself, I remember staring back at people, trying to shame them into good
My father never complained, at least in front of his children, about his pain,
his tiredness, his discouragement. He was sweet-tempered and good humored, and
had many friends who eased his life. My mother was a fierce, courageous, and
nearly inexhaustible woman who kept my father and our family going.