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Life In The Time Of Polio

I was six years old when America was last visited by a polio epidemic.

It was the mid-1950s. Our country was at peace. Grandfatherly Dwight David Eisenhower was president. Returning veterans, including both my parents, were trying to find “normalcy” after living through the tumult of the Great Depression and World War II.

They and their cohorts were busy having babies, creating what would later be tagged the “baby boom” generation. My parents did their part and more – I was the first of six children.

“Normalcy” can mean different things to different people, of course. The world looked quite different if you were a sharecropper in the South or unable to find work in Roxbury or Dorchester.

But in Ipswich, we children were growing up in a very comfortable bubble. The town had about 6,800 inhabitants spread across 33 square miles. There were three dairy farms, clam shacks along East Street, and, further upriver, Sylvania Electric was busy making fluorescent bulbs to illuminate the world.

The Strand Theatre featured feel-good films like Lady and the Tramp and Oklahoma. Neighbors were acquiring a dizzying array of labor-saving appliances, from clothes dryers to dishwashers. Televisions began to replace radios as home entertainment, with programs like Big Brother Bob Emery aimed at us kids and turning us into consumers of Bosco and Necco Wafers.

Places of worship were varied – French, Polish, and Irish Catholic parishes; Greek Orthodox; Episcopalian; Congregational; Baptist; Christian Science – and mostly full. Today’s town offices served as the high school; today’s Winthrop school was the site of a smaller, wooden incarnation.

I lived in a neighborhood, the South Side, overrun with medical personnel, likely because it was not too far from the town’s hospital, Cable. A neighbor, Dr. Arthur Grimes, would actually come to our home if someone was sick. Sometimes that somebody was me, as I was prone to bouts of pneumonia.

In short, life was good and destined to get better and better. The advent of antibiotics – the so-called “miracle drugs” – seemed to guarantee endless good health. Life expectancy was advancing so quickly that one might believe you could live forever … if they could just keep up the pace.

At this point in my life, all of my grandparents were living. Indeed, I did not personally know anyone who had subsequently died. Life-threatening sickness was an abstraction – and happened to the very old.

And then the polio outbreak came.

Unlike COVID-19, it tended to be a summer phenomenon. And, again unlike COVID-19, it tended to target the young.

Polio, of course, had been around for decades. Famously, Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted as a young man back in the 1920s after swimming in the frigid waters of Campobello, New Brunswick.

But it returned with a vengeance in 1955 America. And while most afflicted did not die – especially if they had access to a fearsome piece of machinery called an “iron lung” – they could end up crippled for life.

The outbreak was all over television and radio and in newspapers, including images of small children seemingly being inserted into these “lungs.”

No one was quite sure how the virus was transmitted, but certainly in Ipswich it was thought that a likely vector were pools of water.

If you were six, all of this was terrifying.

We, like many families, spent much of the summer at Crane Beach. The ocean was the main reason my dad had selected Ipswich to open a dental practice after finishing up at Tufts.

We still went to the beach that summer, but were guided by our mother, a nurse with an almost Howard Hughes-like aversion to germs, to areas well isolated from others. We were also instructed to stay away from the low-tide pools that would form.  

We practiced social and physical distancing long before it became a “thing.” So did most other folks in town.

The good news, of course, is that a vaccine was developed – first, an inoculation devised by Dr. Jonas Salk, and, later, a sticky-sweet oral concoction developed by Dr. Albert Sabin.

American medicine prevailed. We got on with our childhood.

But you never really forget. Our age of innocence had passed.

When COVID-19 first hit, it brought back a flood of memories. And it seemed ironic that while polio in the 1950s seemingly targeted those of us who were very young, this new epidemic is targeting my generation in our 60s and 70s.

The lesson in all of this is that Ipswich got through the polio outbreak and emerged stronger than ever. We will all get through this as well. There will be a vaccine. Life will prevail. And, with any luck, we will retain the ability to pull together for the common good, even after facing off with a common threat.

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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