The Dreaded Polio Scare of the 1950s

A Facebook group to which I belong is sharing responses to the question, “What was your favorite hangout as a child?”

If like me you grew up during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, there are only two possible answers to that question: my own backyard, and Karen’s.

Mothers were urged to keep their children at home. Kiddie pools were emptied, parks were childless, and if Karen and I were allowed to walk to my local library, I don’t recall having done so.

Even copies of “My Weekly Reader”, a periodical published for children and distributed through the Minneapolis School system, carried articles about the dangers inherent in polio.

I remember staring with morbid fascination at a grainy black and white photo of a little girl in an iron lung—a huge, tube-like contraption that, we read, “breathed” for her. Only her head stuck out. A mirror mounted above her face allowed her to see surrounding activities, albeit with limited rotation of her head.

She looked so brave in the photo. How could she even smile? Would she spend the rest of her life trapped in this iron cylinder? What did she do when she had to go to the bathroom? Would her friends eventually abandon her out of boredom? How could this scary machine do her breathing for her? What if someone tripped on the electrical cord that kept it plugged in? (I was a very imaginative child and I loved the macabre.)

I’m certain the article discussed all of this but I recall reading none of it. What I do remember is how not too many months later, my classmates and I were lined up outside the school nurse’s office to receive the first of our polio vaccines.

The gravity of the situation must have been impressed on us because I never before had we lined up so silently in a line



Author: Judy Westergard

Retired English teacher, self-taught painter, inveterate reader and still lovin' my Kindle!

2 thoughts on “The Dreaded Polio Scare of the 1950s”

  1. Just finished adding a second comment to my previous one, in March, to your previous post, was compelled to write immediately so now have come back to this one. As always, love what you say, your perspective and ability to convey your experience. Having left Minnesota for California when I was five (and I think we are about the same age), my memories of the polio scare was different–or maybe just not as memorable. I do remember being lined up for our vaccinations, though. Snaky rows and rows of children lined up on the hot playground pavement, weaving in and out between wooden bungalows, classrooms on stilts, that provided the only shade. I had the scar for a long time but it seems to have disappeared. I looked for it, just now. The little white crater is gone.

    But not the memory, thanks to your refreshing it!

    In the meantime, in the last post of yours, I was railing against the lack of comments generated–couldn’t understand why more people don’t responde–but realize now that perhaps you are receiving the kudos you deserve via Facebook. Myself not being on board that particular venue, apologize if I’ve misunderstood your true situation. Hope you have thousands of LIKES and FRIENDS. I am a great fan of yours and, in whatever medium it comes, believe deeply you deserve masses of recognition.



    1. Hi, Diane. I don’t check this site very often (in fact, I just now read your June 17 & 18 posts). Nope…not many comments because not many folks read my posts, probably because I’m not graphics-heavy.

      I’ve not written anything lately because this has been a summer of medical crap. Nothing serious, just lots of M.D. visits for the various maladies that accompany an aging body. (Thank goodness for adult diapers; I can finally sit through a 3 hour play without embarrassing myself.)

      Thanks for the kind words; who knows…maybe I’ll get back to writing (if my pain in my left hand ever allows me to and the double visions goes away). (Sorry for the organ recital.)


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