Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
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Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
You are on Living in Fear
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

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The first summer when I was home in Minnesota was that gosh-awful polio epidemic they had there.  We admitted 464 proven cases of polio just at the University Hospital, which is unbelievable.  And this was a very severe paralytic form.  Maybe two or three hours after a lot of these kids would come in with a stiff neck or a fever, they'd be dead.  It was unbelievable.  It was just loads of people that came in, sometimes with only a fever but usually a headache and a little stiffness in the neck.  And just absolutely terrified.  At the height of the epidemic, the people in Minneapolis were so frightened that there was nobody in the restaurants.  There was practically no traffic, the stores were empty.  It just was considered a feat of bravado almost to go out and mingle in public.  A lot of people just took up and moved away, went to another city.

— Richard Aldrich, M.D.
quoted in A Paralyzing Fear

The face of polio changed when the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis instituted their March of Dimes campaign.  It took control of the war against this disease out of the hands of a few researchers and doctors and placed it in the hands of the people.  Just as Victory Gardens and scrap drives and paper drives and civilian air wardens gave individual Americans the power to fight the war against the axis on the home front, so donating dimes and soliciting for dimes and walking the neighbourhood collecting dimes empowered the average American to fight the war against polio personally.

The war against polio looked like the war against the Germans, too.   It had its general staff, the central organization of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.  It had its soldiers in the trenches, the doctors and nurses in the polio wards.  It had its tactical planners, those in medical labs who sought out the enemy's weaknesses.  It had its USO, the volunteers on the home front.  It even had its celebrity promoters, who now lent their names to the drive to support research as easily as they had once lent their name to war bond sales.

Fundraising poster, c. 1950.
Fundraising poster c. 1950.

An even more powerful weapon was Sister Elizabeth Kenny.  She arrived in the U.S. from Australia in 1940 and introduced a new method of treating polio patients.  Polio patients experienced deep and painful muscle spasms.  Doctors of the time believed that the stronger muscles would pull bones out of alignment when they were in spasm, and that this produced permanent deformity.  As a solution, they encased patients in rigid casts.

Kenny believed that the casts were a large contributor to the deformity, and advocated hot packs to relieve the spasms and a program of assisted exercise, whereby a nurse or technician would move the paralyzed patient through a series of exercises designed to retrain the muscles.1  Although she originally met with controversy, the effectiveness of her treatments could not be disputed, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis granted money to train therapists in Kenny-style rehabilitation.  Within one year, incidence of residual paralysis was reduced from 85% to 15%.2  In the war against polio, Kenny had the presence and the stature of MacArthur or Patton.

Polio had always seemed cruel in the way that it targeted children.  Now it seemed hostile.  For every action of the March of Dimes that empowered the populace, for every champion of the children like Sister Kenny, the disease seemed to gain strength to meet them.  In the early 1950s, polio epidemics were rising even faster than the population, and this was the height of the baby boom. 

Cases of
Paralytic Polio

1933 5000
1943 12,000
1946 25,000
1948 27,000
1950 33,000
  1952* 59,000

*The polio epidemic of 1952 is notable because serious outbreaks occurred in all of the forty-eight states, and in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.3

"By then, polio epidemics were second only to the atomic bomb in surveys of what Americans feared most.  Bomb and virus alike were terrible agents of destruction that might arrive at any moment to devastate a family, a community, or an entire nation.  The disease seemed like an omnipresent threat, and its cure became a national responsibility.  Epidemics struck other countries, but never as heavily as here.  America was the center of polio, and the place where people knew they must work first, and fastest, to end it.  They gave their time and money to help the growing swell of victims and to find a way to stem the rising tide of injury.  When the call came, they even volunteered their children, millions of them, to test a new vaccine.  The fear that had once driven Americans apart was now the force that pulled them together."4

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Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  "Sister Elizabeth Kenny."  Australians Documentary Series.  1998.   (1 June 1999). 

2.  Beckstrand, Jan, RN.  "History of Nursing Science."  Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (professor's personal Web space).   (1 June 1999).

3.  Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.  p. 157.

4.  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. 170-171.