clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The polio epidemics of the 1950s looked an awful lot like today

We can learn from the stories of polio survivors and their loved ones, who found hope in dark times.

This is a scene in the emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, Mass., on Aug. 16, 1955. The city’s polio epidemic hit a high of 480 cases. The critical patients are lined up close together in iron lung respirators so that a team of doctors and nurses can give fast emergency treatment as needed.
Associated Press

In the dark and cold of winter and the uncertainty of our ever tumultuous world, it can be easy to feel despair, supposing our times are worse than times before. Yet, there have been many winters when hope waned in the world and fear settled in the hearts of parents and families.

For my mother, her family, and many others, the winter of 1951-52 was also full of darkness and great uncertainty. Communism was rapidly spreading across the globe, war was raging in the Korean Peninsula, and the poliovirus outbreak was the worst in the nation’s history. Parents worried not only about their young men being sent to war but that their children would get a virus that could paralyze or kill them. Swimming pools, movie theaters and other activities were limited or completely closed for fear of this invisible enemy.

My uncle, Gordon Nielson, was fighting on the fatal front lines of the Korean War when my mother, Myrna Nielson Thacker, contracted the poliovirus at the age of 14. She experienced flu-like symptoms, a high fever, numbness and stiffness in her feet and legs, and excruciating pain in her back. Within just a few days, she was paralyzed from the waist down.

She recalls in her memoir that “sometime during that dreamless twilight of waking and returning to sleep that first winter night in the hospital, I heard a woman crying outside my doorway in the hall. It sounded like Mother to me, and when she came in a while later, I asked her why she had been crying. She said no, no, it wasn’t her, it was some other poor woman, but I found out later that it had been her crying. The doctor had told her that I had polio.”

For her mother, Doris, whose childhood had been full of suffering from an abusive alcoholic father, the possibility of now losing her son in war and seeing her daughter paralyzed by a terrible virus were almost too much to bear. It tested her emotional and spiritual strength to the very core, forever impacting her mental health and peace of mind.

My mother kept detailed journals about her polio experience and her parents’ anxieties and devotion in doing everything possible to help her recover. You read that similar to the coronavirus, everyone was learning in real-time. The doctors, nurses and scientists were in a continual process of discovery, working to identify new ways to relieve suffering while waiting for a vaccine. Reading her words provides a clear look and feel into the mind and heart of a young teenage girl enduring an extraordinary challenge caused by a terrible virus, living in a world full of uncertainty for what would lie ahead.

Temporary polio isolation units, like those we’ve seen erected in coronavirus hot spots, were common in many cities. She was taken to the Salt Lake County Hospital polio isolation ward that was located at 2100 South and State Street where the Salt Lake County offices are today. The old buildings were converted army barracks that were sterile and uninviting. Like the concern for contagion today, she had to dispose of all her belongings and visits were severely limited or not allowed.

For a young girl, the isolation, paralysis and uncertainty were overwhelming. She wrote that she could hardly sleep very much during the night. Yet, in those dark winter nights she noticed a burning light bulb in the hallway that became a comfort to her and as she described, “taught me how important light is in lifting our spirits. It gave me something to focus on instead of the pain.” The coronavirus along with our nation’s current political strife has created uncertainty and despair, forcing all of us to look for greater light to lead and guide us through these hard times.

Polio was around for decades until a vaccine was finally developed in 1955. We can learn a lot from the stories of polio survivors and their loved ones, like my mother and her family, who lived through a war and an earlier pandemic and became strong and resilient human beings.

Randall Thacker recently published “Never Give Up: Triumphing Over Polio,” a memoir written by his mother, Myrna Thacker. He is an executive and leadership team coach and former international president of Affirmation — LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends.