Edwin Hande, whose children both contracted polio (but recovered), says,
"If you think about anthrax today, just think about what polio was then. Unbelievable. People were scared."
Katherine Ott, curator of a new polio exhibit opening today at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History says,
"Polio was the AIDS of its day. That's the best way to capture the intensity of it."
What is polio? Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious virus that can involve the nervous system and cause paralysis. It's most common in infants and young children, but more likely to cause complications in older patients. The virus enters the body by nose or mouth and travels to the intestines, where it incubates. A few days later, most patients are either asymptomatic or they experience flu-like symptoms, such as headache, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Whether they are symptomatic or not, people at this stage can pass the disease on to others. (Polio can be spread through contact with infected feces or through infected droplets traveling through the air, in food, or in water.) The virus then enters the bloodstream, and the patient makes antibodies against it. In most cases, this stops the progression of the virus and the patient is immune to the virus for the rest of his or her life. But 10% of infected people develop symptoms and 1% develop the paralytic form of polio.
At the height of the U.S. polio epidemic in 1952, there were nearly 60,000 documented cases and more than 3,000 deaths. Did you know that Minneapolis was one of the hardest-hit cities in the United States during the polio epidemic? The city was home to thousands of patients, but also to Elizabeth Kenny, a pioneer in polio treatment. In January of 1952, the Gallup Company released the results of its annual survey on the most admired woman in America. For the previous 20 years the results of this poll were predictable: Eleanor Roosevelt always won the honor. In 1952, however, Elizabeth Kenny beat out Mrs. Roosevelt.
So who was Elizabeth Kenny? Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian practical nurse, developed the best treatment for polio available before the vaccines to prevent the disease in the first place. (Early in her career, she worked with Aboriginal groups in Australia and noticed how they used hot cloths on the arms and legs of people afflicted with polio. Her work with them informed her views on the disease and how it should be treated.) She invented a special stretcher to transport patients in shock, and the royalties on the patent enabled her to start her own clinics.
At the time, most doctors thought that, in the acute phase of polio, stronger muscles pulled on the weaker ones and caused deformities, so patients were often splinted and immobilized to prevent this-sometimes for years. Kenny, on the other hand, advocated application of heat packs and immediate physical therapy to retrain the weakened muscles. The medical establishment in Australia, England, and much of the United States opposed her, but was also forced to admit that patients treated with the Kenny method generally did better than patients treated conventionally. She moved to the United States in 1940 and became a guest faculty member of the University of Minnesota. She died in 1952, three years before the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine. But the institute she founded and the World Health Organization continued to be the biggest supporters of polio research. (The two groups financed the conferences in 1959 and 1960 in which Albert Sabin announced the results of the trials of his live polio vaccine, which could be administered more easily than the Salk vaccine.) A Minneapolis neighborhood and school are named after Elizabeth Kenny. The Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute is still part of the Abbott Northwestern Hospital complex in Minneapolis. And the Kenny methods of physical therapy continue to help people who've lost the use of their limbs through car crashes, strokes, and other injuries.
Routine vaccination in the United States has virtually eliminated polio here. Thousands of infections still occur every year in Asia and Africa, but the World Health Organization has a plan to completely eradicate the disease worldwide.
Here are some narratives by people who lived through the polio epidemic in the 1950s.
Has your life been touched by polio in some way? Do you have a recollection or observation to share?