Polio became an epidemic infectious disease in the early 20th century when increased sanitation meant that children were not exposed early in life when cases were mild gastrointestinal upsets. Without early acquired immunities, older children and some adults were much more likely to develop the paralytic form of polio. Annual epidemics occurred mostly in the summer and led to an atmosphere of terror and focus on the disease. In addition, paralyzed polio survivors lived in iron lungs, potent visual symbols of lifelong disabilities. The election of a president infected by polio brought national attention to the disease and led to the development of the first national fundraising program for a specific disease- the March of Dimes. With a pediatric patient population, a sympathetic president and widespread fear there was great impetus for research to develop treatments and particularly a vaccine. Thus polio resulted in focused public attention on a cure, a national fundraising organization and a coordinated movement that resulted in a widespread vaccination program and the virtual disappearance of the disease in the United States.
As paralytic polio disappeared from the country, it also vanished from the national imagination- as often seems the case with infectious disease whose impact may be great but the memory of such vanishes with the microbe. In this case too, living memory of the disease is waning as the last generation to be affected by the disease ages. Thus, there is strong impetus to capture the history of this epidemic. Other states have initiated polio survivor oral history programs; and the University of Florida is in an excellent position to conduct interviews with polio survivors in the state.
There are several projects recording the history of polio underway at the University of Florida. We continue to collect stories of living with the impact of polio. This project will be conducted in collaboration with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and will include training and working with a medical student interested in pursuing studies in the medical humanities. The Proctor Program will transcribe the interviews and post them to a web site that will focus on examining how polio transformed American society.
We also are working on publication of a special narrative written by the mother of a child who contracted polio in Lake City, Florida. This story is being published by the Smathers Libraries’ own press. You can see images of Ms. Edna Hindson’s story here.
Recommended reading and listening:
Shelley Fraser Mickle. The Polio Hole: The Story of an Illness that Changed America.
Also view the oral history interview with Ms. Mickle at this site.
Websites of Interest:
Roosevelt Warm Springs. Warm Springs is a rehabilitation center founded Franklin Delano Roosevelt.