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

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