The Polio Epidemic

Iowa PBS Explores | Digital Short
May 26, 2020 | 6 min

Public swimming pools were shut down. Movie theaters urged patrons to not sit too close together. And children disappeared from neighborhoods. Sound familiar? The polio pandemic ravaged communities across the country, and Iowa was not spared.


NARRATOR: As weather warmed each year a growing fear swept the nation in the 1940s and early 50s. Public swimming pools were shut down. Movie theaters urged patrons to not sit too close together and children disappeared from neighborhoods. But even with all of these precautions thousands upon thousands of people fell ill with polio. It was called by many the worst pandemic of the 20th century. This destructive disease was no stranger to Iowa. It ravaged communities and as one newspaper article stated, "Polio is no respecter of age or position." As early as 1910, over 150 cases of polio were recorded in Iowa communities. But in 1940 the numbers skyrocketed. Between 1948 and 1950 the state averaged 1,300 cases and in 1952 the disease reached a peak, especially in northwest Iowa.

TOM MORAIN: Sioux City, for some reason, was a hot spot, not only for Iowa, but for the entire nation. Iowa had 3, 500 cases in 1952. A quarter of those cases were in Sioux City, so that's about 800 to 900 cases within one Iowa city. It was so bad that Bob Hope, the comedian, came to Sioux City and did a fundraiser sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce just to raise money for polio victims and to support the efforts to fight it.

Narrator: For 99 of the people infected with polio the symptoms are very similar to the flu. Fever, aches and fatigue. For a very small few however, the disease attacked the spinal cord and respiratory system which could cause paralysis, especially for children, who were the most at risk.

MORAIN: For those unlucky enough to be hospitalized with the paralyzing polio, sometimes their ability to breathe, to suck in, and to blow out was compromised and they would be put in iron lungs. Many of you have seen pictures of iron lungs, like long tubes that you fit in. One of the heart-wrenching pictures of polio that has been painted for us is at Blank Hospital in Des Moines. The second floor of the hospital was quarantined for children's polio victims. Parents would drive up and lean their ladders against the side of the hospital and climb up and read books through the sealed windows of the hospital so that their children could see them, they could have some kind of contact with their children. The quarantine had a very painful side effect when it cut off parents and children.

NARRATOR: Finally in 1954, 13,000 children in Woodbury, Linn and Scott counties were part of the clinical trials for the new Salk vaccine.

NEWS REPORTER: "An historic victory over a dread disease is dramatically unfolded at the University of Michigan. Here scientists usher in a new medical age with the monumental reports that prove the Salk vaccine against crippling polio to be a sensational success." NARRATOR: By 1955 nationwide vaccinations began.

MORAIN: "And mother was standing in front of the television and she was crying. And Bill didn't know why she would be crying and asked her. And mom said, "they've developed a vaccine against polio." And it was such a national celebration and a relief that you no longer had to worry about your children. Along with that story, I am part of the success story for that. Because when I was in third grade, we were the guinea pig class across the nation, that was used to test the vaccine.

NARRATOR: After the introduction of the Salk vaccine, cases continued to pop up around the country. But nothing came close to what it was like in the 1940s and 50s. It instilled fear, it changed our culture, and combating it was a nationwide effort.

MORAIN: When you're looking back on a disease you always see the beginning and the end of the pandemic. And so you assume that the people living through that knew they would come to a successful conclusion because we know how the story came out at the end. When you're living through one like we do, and we don't know the ending, we wonder where this is going, how is this ever going to come out. If history is any teacher, it says you live through it, you do what you have to day by day, you take the best advice you can and you follow it, you try to keep your life as normal and within the guidelines that you have. And day by day, that's how you endure an epidemic. Not knowing the conclusion is the tough part. Living with the unknown is the tough part. But our ancestors lived with tough stuff. Our ancestors got through tough stuff. And I think we'll get through tough stuff.