Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is - Polio


Of course President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's quote is "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". But reading the novel Lucy by Ellen Feldman last month got me to thinking about how much we feared contracting polio when I was young. President Roosevelt was stricken at the age of 39 in 1921 after running for vice-president in 1920. His partial paralysis did not prevent him from being elected president an unprecedented four times beginning in 1932.
The above picture is from the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. I had seen all the older memorials on previous trips to D.C.


But our trip there in 2008 was my first visit to this memorial. I think it is one of the most attractive of all the memorials. It would be lovely to visit it at this time of year when the cherry trees are in bloom. It lies very near the trees and tidal basin. There are several water features throughout the 7.5 acre memorial. I believe the one Mark, Bud & I are standing before in this photo represents the Tennessee Valley Authority dam building project begun in 1933 during FDR's first administration.

Because of his polio, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to combat polio in 1938. Singer, actor, comedian Eddie Cantor came up with the idea for everyone to send the President a dime for his January 30th birthday in 1938. Calling it the "March of Dimes", the White House was inundated with dimes.

The "March of Dimes" became an annual fund raiser to "put an end to polio". This is the poster I remember the most:


In 1953 my home county, Adams, had the highest per person contribution rate in the state of Iowa. As a grade school student I remember the little cardboard dime holders.


My quarter a week allowance never went far enough and try as I might, I wasn't a very good "saver". So when the time came to fill our folders with dimes, I never had enough and I desperately wanted mine to be completely filled even though it was okay if it was less than full. Mom would contribute a dime or two, but with three of us in school, whatever dimes she had in her coin purse was never enough for all of us. Dad's spare change was usually on top of the refrigerator. I was not above sneaking dimes off there to fill any of my empty spaces.

Nationwide there was a huge polio epidemic in 1949. That may be the time my 'polio' memory stems from, although I think it was more likely 1952 when I was almost nine. Summertime was prime polio time. I distinctly remember not being allowed to go to town, which for a country kid was a big deal, because of my Mom's fear that we might 'catch' polio - even though it was unknown exactly how polio was spread.


Usually by the time school started the polio season was over. This is our 'first day of school' photo from 1952. I was entering the fourth grade. That's the cowboy (cowgirl?) shirt I was so proud of.

Here are some news bytes from the Free Press that year: January 17 - "Eight active (polio) cases in Adams County." There were eleven new cases in 1952 added to six from previous years.
August, 1952 ad - "Polio Insurance $10 per family."
Also August - (4 year old) "Larry Wynn, oldest son of Mr. & Mrs. Verl Wynn, entered the Blank Memorial Hospital last Sunday, a polio patient. His condition is listed as satisfactory."
September 11 - "Clifford Abbey, 30, dies of polio leaving wife and two sons; veteran of WWII." Three other polio sufferers were also listed in that issue.

This is why I think my polio fear memory is from 1952:


At that time the local swimming hole was at Lake Binder. There was a small beach, a diving tower, and the little diving pier shown in this photo. That summer there was a big scare about swimming at Lake Binder. People were being advised NOT to swim there for fear of catching polio. We didn't go to the lake to swim very often, but I'm sure we didn't go there that summer.

Sixty years ago today, April 12, 1955, the Salk Polio Vaccine was licensed for use. Two years earlier Dr. Jonas Salk had announced that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Clinical trials using the vaccine and a placebo were conducted during 1954.

Preparations for immunization clinics must have been readied before the vaccine was licensed because the first immunizations in Adams County were administered on April 21, 1955. All children in the 1st and 2nd grades were the first to receive their shots. To be effective, you had to have three shots. On May 2, those 1st and 2nd graders got their second shots. All 304 students were processed in one hour, ten minutes at the National Guard Armory.

I don't remember how or when I got my shots, but I'm sure I did - probably at Dr. Fry's office. It's funny, but I remember more about the Sabin oral 'sugar cube' vaccine which was first given in July of 1962. Maybe my little brother took part in that. The second dose was given August 2, 1962 in Central Park. All ages were urged to take the oral doses even if they had received the Salk vaccine. More than 4,000 people paid 25 cents to receive their second dose that day. Am I remembering the oral vaccine because I did get it, too? My first child was born only eight days after the second dose was given. Would I have taken the vaccine while pregnant? I can't remember.


My absolute biggest fear about polio had to be the fear of being placed in an iron lung - a negative pressure ventilator which enabled a patient to breathe. I remember the first time I saw a picture of a little boy in one. I was horrified. I couldn't think of anything worse than having polio and being in one of those contraptions.

President Roosevelt died 70 years ago today, April 12, 1945, ten years before the licensing of the vaccine that would end polio. (Coincidence? or planned to correspond?)


The following year the Roosevelt dime was released to honor FDR and his efforts in founding the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. (March of Dimes)

My children and grandchildren have not had to fear polio, but I will always remember the summer I didn't get to go to town.


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