It was the robber of hope for a generation, several generations
of children. There were diseases, and scientists will chart them, that were more
devastating, affecting more children, more deadly than polio. But polio left kids
crippled, and that was an image that this big strong postwar country simply couldn't
abide. We had children lining up in wheelchairs, in iron lungs, whose very vitality
and everyone's hope for their future was allayed right at the most critical time in their
childhoods. And that's why polio seemed like such a horrible scourge, far more so
than any number of other diseases or accidents that, any way you want to measure it, were
more deadly and were fatal. And the image of a child in an iron lung is about as
tearful and wrenching as we could imagine at that time, and any time certainly in this
century. There were many other diseases that were bad for America, but polio broke
Mark Sauer, polio survivor
quoted in A Paralyzing Fear
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In the summer of 1916, New York City was struck with a strange epidemic.
More and more children were affected, until thousands in New York, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, and Connecticut were sick. At first, it seemed to be a cold, with a
headache and sometimes chills. Then, paralysis might set in, anything from a joint
suddenly stiff to the whole body immobilized. Some were suddenly unable to breathe
or swallow, and death followed as quickly as the illness had begun. By mid-August,
9000 children had shown symptoms of the disease.
Nobody understood the disease. It was worse in Brooklyn and Staten
Island than in Manhattan. Rural victims were more likely to die than those in urban
areas. The strongest children were more susceptible than the weakest senior.
What did this mean, though?
The disease theory of Pasteur and the preventive measures of Lister were
well known. Sanitation had already been used effectively against typhoid, dysentery,
and tuberculosis, so New York officials scrubbed the streets with four million gallons of
water per day. Seventy-two thousand stray cats were killed. Nothing helped.1
In the absence of clear, effective information from public health
authorities, the public panicked and reacted hysterically. They blamed the usual
scapegoats, the poor and the newly immigrated. Even though people far from New
York's slums got polio, even though the clean middle class got polio, it made no
Autopsies of the dead showed inflammation of the anterior spinal cord, and
the disease got its name: poliomyelitis. To the public, it was Infantile
Paralysis, the crippler of children.
"Nonresident bathing was banned at the Hudson Park beach.
Sunday schools were closed, and children under sixteen were forbidden to attend the
local vaudeville theatres. Travelers were stopped at the city limits and issued
transit passes good for one-half hour. Ferry service from the Bronx was suspended,
and meetings were held almost daily for doctors to inform parents how best to care for
their children. Sutton Manor, an exclusive residential enclave with a private marina
off the main harbor, declared itself in voluntary isolation from the rest of the city.
The local board of health printed quarantine signs in English, Italian, and
As suddenly as the disease flared, it died down. With the first
frost, the incidence plunged. But that summer had been a killer. Twenty-seven
thousand cases of polio had been reported in twenty-six states between June and December
of 1916, resulting in six thousand deaths. Eighty percent of those affected were
children under five.3
Two years later, in 1918, a world wide pandemic of influenza struck.
In the U.S. alone, 600,000 people died, far more than were killed by polio. But with
influenza, you either lived or were buried. So many of those who had
"recovered" from polio were left with twisted backs, withered limbs, bodies that
no longer could run and play. They were a visible reminder of the disease that had
come from nowhere and had no treatment and no cure.4
From that summer on, there was not a single year that passed without an
epidemic of poliomyelitis.
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1. Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul
Wagner. A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America. New
York, New York: TV Books. 1998. pp. 20-22.
2. Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the
Salk Vaccine. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
1990. p. 32.
3. idem. p. 23.
4. idem. pp. 23-24.