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The Life and Times

Fighting Ghosts

June 2024
6min read

Polio’s legacy to those who survived it includes uncommon stamina and courage—and one grim new joke

Some years ago I traveled to Boston to meet for the first time the filmmaker Henry Hampton, who had just completed the magisterial “Eyes on the Prize” series for PBS. I knew from a mutual friend that he had contracted infantile paralysis in his youth, and when I got to his office I saw that he wore a brace on one leg and that when we started off for lunch he was not altogether steady on his feet. I’m not either, and for the same reason: I got polio in July of 1950, just two weeks before Dr. Jonas Salk formally applied to the March of Dimes for a grant to “undertake studies with the objective of developing a method for the prevention of paralytic poliomyelitis by immunologic means.”

But neither of us said a word about disability as we stumped our way together down the stairs, worked our laborious way in and out of Henry’s car, negotiated a high curb, and finally entered the restaurant he’d chosen for us. It was on two levels. There were plenty of empty tables downstairs, but we ignored them and without saying a word headed directly for the stairs instead, using the railing to haul ourselves up hand over hand, puffing and blowing while pretending to each other that no extra effort was being made.

Finally, winded, I stopped halfway up. “Henry,” I said, “why the hell are we doing this?” He started to laugh. So did I, and so loudly that other diners began to stare, wondering what we two lurching climbers could possibly have to laugh about. We ignored them, made it to the top together, and have been friends ever since.

As Tony Gould (himself a polio) makes clear in his vivid new book A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors , we were acting the way polios have traditionally acted. Gould’s book is a compendium of polio lore that includes a concise history of the disease, a lively account of the struggle to find a vaccine, and reminiscences of what life has been like for some of its most badly damaged survivors, both here and in the author’s native England.

I suppose I am hopelessly prejudiced, but the tale of polio’s conquest—also told well several years ago by Jane S. Smith in Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine —seems to me to be one of the great American success stories of this century. Its outlines are familiar to anyone of a certain age. Polio first hit the United States with full force in the summer of 1916. Six thousand Americans died of it that year, most of them children, and at least twenty-seven thousand more were permanently affected. Thereafter, for thirty-nine straight summers, American mothers lived in daily fear for their children, fear compounded by the fact that at first no one even knew what caused the disease, let alone how it might be prevented. Italian immigrants were blamed early on. So were cats, ice cream, automobile exhaust; one theory held that sharks had inhaled poison gas drifting seaward from the Western Front, then somehow brought it with them all the way across the Atlantic.

“We were fighting ghosts,” my own mother remembers, and we might still be dealing with those phantoms had the thirty-nine-year-old Franklin Roosevelt not come down with the disease in 1921. His well-publicized struggle against paralysis helped remove its stigma, and his decision to invest most of his personal fortune in a treatment center at Warm Springs, Georgia, led to the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1937, with Basil ’Connor, his law partner, as its unpaid president. O’Connor was a tough Boston Irishman utterly uninterested in anything but results, who once summed up his leadership style in a single line: “Committees are to help you do what you want to do, and if the committee doesn’t do it, fire them and get a new one!”

Together he and Roosevelt mobilized the American public to wage all-out war on polio. There is a nice irony in the fact that FDR, often accused of making Americans too dependent on government, was in his lifetime “Polio Crusader Number One,” the living symbol of the national campaign that yielded the greatest triumph of voluntarism in our history. The federal government played no part whatsoever in polio’s conquest. (In fact, had today’s regulatory agencies existed when Salk was at work, much of his early vaccination of children would have been illegal.) Alternately cajoled and goaded by the relentless O’Connor, giants of industry contributed their time and talent to the cause (it became a crusade for O’Connor after his own daughter came down with the disease). So did advertising agencies, filmmakers, radio stars (it was Eddie Cantor who came up with the notion of a “March of Dimes” that inundated the White House with coins), and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. O’Connor was so proud of his organization’s determinedly amateur status that when he was urged in 1954 to hire professional clerks to do all the paperwork created by massive field-testing of the Salk vaccine, he angrily refused. “Our people will do it free,” he said proudly, “and do it better.”

The war on polio lasted seventeen years, and there were setbacks and embarrassments along the way: Warm Springs barred black polios from its pools; a wartime outbreak of the disease tore through Japanese-Americans trapped in an Arizona relocation center; rival researchers, overeager for the fame and adulation guaranteed for the scientist who first developed a fool-proof vaccine, were guilty of a some- times startling amount of unseemly backbiting; and a faulty batch of vaccine, produced by a pharmaceutical company that had cut corners for fear of missing out on potential profits, infected 204 persons and threatened to undermine the national vaccination program before it could get off the ground.

Critics dismiss the attitudes with which we polios were imbued as simple denial. Nevertheless, denial has had its uses.

But none of that mattered on the twelfth of April, 1955—ten years to the day after FDR’s death at Warm Springs—when Salk announced that his vaccine had proved effective. VICTORY OVER POLIO! read the two-inch headline in our local newspaper, the Chicago Daily News : POLIO VACCINE WORKS!

Those of us born too soon to benefit from Salk’s work rejoiced with the rest of the country, then got on with our lives, very often exhibiting the baffling sort of behavior Henry and I displayed at our Boston lunch. A 1987 study of polio survivors funded by the March of Dimes and included in Gould’s book may provide part of the answer to why we acted that way. It found that a very high percentage of us were “competent, hard-driving and time-conscious over-achievers who demand perfection in all aspects of their personal, professional, and social lives.” Some believe that the disease actually sought out such people to strike, that the inward stress experienced by that kind of personality somehow made them more vulnerable to infection. Others argue that only that kind of personality could have first survived the disease’s acute stage and then managed to flourish in a world filled with obstacles both physical and psychological.

To me, the second explanation seems the more plausible. We were provided with physical therapy during the 1950s but no psychological counseling of the kind now routinely offered to patients who suffer some sudden disability. Infected children were generally kept apart from their parents (whose presence was somehow thought to interfere with recovery), and many came to blame themselves for having fallen ill. “One person thought she got polio because she pulled her dog’s ears,” recalled a woman who attended a recent meeting of adult survivors. “Another … believed he caught polio because he ate blueberries he wasn’t supposed to eat.” It seemed entirely plausible to me at ten that I’d fallen ill because I’d kept sword fighting with a friend after my mother told me to stop.

Support groups for polio patients were unknown in our time. We were encouraged to suppress our anger and grief, not express them; to transform those emotions into an ever-greater determination to rebuild muscles and resume the most “normal” life possible. The titles of memoirs written by polios suggest the grin-and-bear-it attitudes we were encouraged to adopt: Rise Up and Walk , No Time for Tears , The Long Road Back , Through the Storm , Keep Trying . One historian who read thirty-five such works found their “themes of recovery and redemption … reminiscent of the Puritan Covenants of Works and of Grace.”

Modern critics dismiss the attitudes with which we were imbued as simple denial, and I have no doubt that we all have paid a psychological price for failing to question them. Still, denial has had its uses. I believe that it was in part because we were taught that we could do anything despite our handicaps that we actually did manage to do a good deal.

Polio is virtually gone now from the United States (though it persists in developing countries, where there may be as many as 116,000 new cases every year, most of them in India and China). But even here it seems to be having one last laugh. Thirty or forty years on, thousands of us have suddenly found ourselves weaker than we’d expected to be at this stage of life. Physicians differ on the causes of this disheartening trend, but the prevailing view seems to be that in our zeal to appear as unaffected by polio as possible, many of us simply overdid it, wearing out damaged muscles that might better have been husbanded. “It isn’t their vices that are catching up with them,” Gould quotes one physician as saying. “It’s their virtues, good old-fashioned rehabilitative virtues: exercise, effort and physical achievement.”

Still, old dogs remain wary of new tricks. I saw Henry Hampton not long ago. He has recently had to supplement his brace with two crutches, while I, who haven’t worn a brace for four decades, find I now need one to bolster my weaker leg. Even so, I’m willing to bet that if we returned together to that two-story restaurant, we’d again start right for the stairs.

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