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When Polio Triggered Fear and Panic Among Parents in the 1950s

March 27, 2020 in History

By Volker Janssen

Since little was understood about the virus that left some paralyzed and others dead, fear filled the vacuum.

In the 1950s, the polio virus terrified American families. Parents tried “social distancing”—ineffectively and out of fear. Polio was not part the life they had signed up for. In the otherwise comfortable World War II era, the spread of polio showed that middle-class families could not build worlds entirely in their control.

For the Texas town of San Angelo on the Concho River, halfway between Lubbock and San Antonio, the spring of 1949 brought disease, uncertainty and most of all, fear. A series of deaths and a surge of patients unable to breathe prompted the airlifting of medical equipment with C-47 military transporters.

Towns Practice Extreme Social Distancing

Children in San Angelo residential areas watch Texas Health employees spray DDT over vacant lots in the city to combat a recent increase in the number of polio cases. All theaters, swimming pools, churches, schools and public meeting places were closed.

Fearful of the spread of the contagious virus, the city closed pools, swimming holes, movie theaters, schools and churches, forcing priests to reach out to their congregations on local radio. Some motorists who had to stop for gas in San Angelo would not fill up their deflated tires, afraid they’d bring home air containing the infectious virus. And one of the town’s best physicians diagnosed his patients based on his “clinical impression” rather than taking the chance of getting infected during the administration of the proper diagnostic test, writes Gareth Williams, Paralyzed with Fear: The Story of Polio. The scene repeated itself across the nation, especially on the Eastern seaboard and Midwest.

The virus was poliomyelitis, a highly contagious disease with symptoms including common flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, tiredness, headache, a stiff neck and stomach ache. For a few though, polio affected the brain and spinal cord, which could lead meningitis and, for one out of 200, paralysis. For two to 10 of those suffering paralysis, the end result was death.

Transmitted primarily via feces but also through airborne droplets from person to person, polio took six to 20 days to incubate and remained contagious for up to two weeks after. The disease had first emerged in the United Sates in 1894, but the first large epidemic happened in 1916 when public health experts recorded 27,000 cases and …read more


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