Echos: Polio, Diversity, and the Cold War 

This is the first of a two part series about Polio, Cultural Diversity, and the Cold war.

DSC02448I’ve been reading Polio stories, both narratives and fiction, each true in its own way. In my experience, the subject fits the weather, hot one day, then wet and cold the next. I contracted the virus over the Labor Day weekend in 1955, that social marker between summer and fall.

Polio was the quintessential Cold War disease, having no known pathway of infection, and threatening children and young adults. Everyone and everything was a potential source of infection, and thus suspect and dangerous. Even those closest to one might carry the virus.The virus was insidious, the threat pervasive, and once an epidemic began, could not be stopped!

The Fifties were a time of intense racial and cultural tension, and differences were viewed as suspect, if not actively dangerous. Little was known about the Polio virus, except that it developed in the gut; as it turns out, much infection was spread via feces. That explains why swimming pools, theaters, and playgrounds, sites of much mixing of people,  cultures and races, were perceived to be hazardous, just as metize was dangerous.

The virus was ubiquitous, almost everyone caught it. Only about 10% of those who contracted the disease developed significant symptoms. Of those, only 10% progressed to respiratory compromise or failure. Estimates suggest that about 2-3% of those who developed Polio died. Still, Polio was terribly frightening, a public nightmare in a time of international peril.

When the Polio virus escaped the gut, it attacked the brain, killing or weakening cells. It then attacked motor neurons in the spinal column, resulting in weakened muscles or, if enough neurons died, paralysis. Paralysis became a dramatic social metaphor, as a powerful nation helplessly watched its children become incapacitated or die. (An echo: today we seem equally incapacitated in the face of ever-growing gun violence.)

Then there were the iron lungs, devices that breathed for lung-compromised victims. The iron lung is a metal tube into which the ill person is placed. Being in the lung is both a relief and terrifying, holding the threat one might become stuck there, living in a sort of limbo, for a lifetime.

When the illness had passed, the survivor might be left with a twisted, weakened body, and most likely faced many months of physical therapy, future corrective surgeries, and a life among the marginalized. At a time when all difference was suspect, the Polio survivor had gone from being a part of the culture to being Other.

Oddly, once the Polio (survivor) had recovered as much as he or she was judged likely to, they were encouraged to avoid contact with other disabled people in general, and Polios in particular. I can remember meeting only one Polio survivor during the period between leaving the hospital and graduating college.

Yet, eventually Polios did begin to seek out one other, and from those meetings arose a civil rights revolution.


15 thoughts on “Echos: Polio, Diversity, and the Cold War 

  1. My Grandmother survived polio. She must have contracted the virus in the 1920’s. She was left with a withered leg and foot and walked with a severe swagger, or roll. She never used a cane or took any kind of help. She was an amazing roll model for me.

    1. Unfortunately, I was working on this remotely and inadvertently posted it before it was complete. The corrected post is now up. Yes, we Polios were a tough lot. It would have been better for us had we been more careful of our bodies, but there was enormous cultural pressure to be as normal as possible. I’m wondering whether you and Becky also feel that pressure.

      1. Becky sometimes feels pressure from people to walk. It sort of suggests that she isn’t trying hard enough. As you know, everything is hard. The day is exhausting for her as it is. She picks and chooses what she wants to improve and that’s what we work on. It is hard to shut your ears to other people’s comments at times, but I remind her that they don’t live in her body. Socaializing is very hard with disabled and non-disabled alike. She does not seem to fit in anywhere. I tell her she is one-of-a-kind and the most amazing person in the world.

      2. Cheryl, I imagine we are all unique, although there is enormous pressure to hide or ignore that. Perhaps disability makes that more difficult to ignore, for both the person who faces it, and the family who find themselves recruited into that world. I love that Becky insists on her life, and that you join her in that!

  2. Interesting information. My parents graduated college and were married in 1955. My dad’s best childhood friend had polio. They both had summer cottages on Lake Michigan and swimming was a favorite activity. My dad had osteomyelitis as a child. My dad died of Alzheimer’s in 2010. His friend is still alive. I always remember him mentioning occasional stiffness and forgetfulness as part of his polio past. I find these threads of story fascinating because I’m always trying to understand my father more fully.

    1. Unfortunately, I was working on this remotely and inadvertently posted it before it was complete. The corrected post is now up.
      Yes, who knows how everything will turn out. Stiffness and forgetfulness are a part of the Post-Polio package. I believe our culture tends to blame us for our Fates, a rather nasty thing to do. Perhaps Alzheimer’s is the new Polio. Certainly, like Polio, (as you know too well) it causes dread in the culture, is very difficult for patient and family, and we do not really understand the causes or treatment of the illness.I wish it had been otherwise for you and your dad.

  3. I was only 2 in 1955. But I do remember the fear that surrounded polio and the polio ‘vaccine’ at school in the square sugar thing. I didn’t know much about it, other than I was told it was extremely painful and people often couldn’t walk after getting it.
    Personally, I would never treat someone as the “Other,” because I was the other once….in an odd sort of way. When I was around 6 or 7 years old, my father took me to a state fair that had a “house of mirrors.’ In one mirror I was tall and skinny…and then in the next mirror, the bottom half of my body was distorted, the middle was normal, and my face was drooping horribly on one side. Like everyone else, I was laughing at the images in the different mirrors–until my perception suddenly shifted. “If mirrors can be designed to lie,” the inner thought said, “then which ones are true and which ones are lies? And what if the mirror at home that makes you look good is the one that lies, and it was placed there just to make you feel better about yourself. Maybe you are horribly deformed and ugly, and maybe all the people you hear laughing….are laughing at you.”
    And then I looked again into the mirror that was twisting my legs and part of my face. I started to cry and felt partially frozen in place. I found it difficult to walk out of there on my deformed legs (that weren’t deformed when I entered). My father came running over to me and asked me what was wrong. Sobbing, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me that my body is all twisted. Why didn’t you tell me that I am ugly.”
    He said, “WHAT? Those mirrors in there are not right. It says “Fun House” over the door. It’s supposed to be fun looking at all the different reflections. They aren’t real. What’s the matter with you? You think too much!”
    But I was devastated. If mirrors lie, how can anyone really know what normal is? Who am I, really? For about an hour, I was so crippled…I couldn’t get up. Finally, I looked at my arms and legs with my own eyes (which I trusted), and realized that I was OK.
    Although I eventually figured it out, this experience forever changed the way that I viewed others who appearance is considered to be less than “normal.” I KNOW how that feels. Every day, other people around us are like mirrors.Some mirrors are kind, some are not. If we judge ourselves by what we see in the eyes of others, we are not necessarily seeing a ‘true’ reflection of who we are.

    1. Mary, this is a marvelous story! I love the metaphor! Yes, we do learn to see ourselves through the mirroring of others. So much depends on the quality, honesty, and kindness of the reflection. I am glad you think deeply and truly about things.

      1. Mary, Thank you. In our world of no historical context or memory, it is important to find metaphors and to notice that events have some relationship to one another. Thank you for mirroring me!

    1. Andy. You are hardly alone. Yet the illness is strangely entangled in the deep history of the last hundred years of life in the West. Seems odd that it is so little known, then again, maybe not.

      1. Yes, I thought it a disease of the past, similarly TB, though I have heard that TB is making something of a ‘comeback’.

      2. Hi Andy,

        Yes, TB is increasingly resistant to available meds and thus is coming back. Polio may be eradicated soon, but there are millions of people with the late effects of the virus. Actually, there is growing evidence that many people had sub-clinical versions of the virus, and then develop major late effects as hey age, so the number of actual survivors is unknown. We tend to forget that there are many young people who contracted polio from the now discontinued live virus.

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