The year was 1954. Polio was a threat, a disabler, and a crippler. In some cases, it was a killer. The mere mention of the word struck fear into the hearts of parents. Annual outbreaks became common after World War II, and each year they seemed to be growing in size and intensity.
Summer, the time when the disease was most prevalent, often saw travel restrictions between cities particularly hard hit. There were quarantines in and around towns where diagnosed cases were confirmed. The spread of the potentially deadly virus was commonly attributed to everything from movie theaters and swimming pools to house flies and the fuzz on peaches. Many parents believed that keeping children inside would provide some layer of protection against the virus. And any protection against the virus was perceived as a way to avoid the iron lung, a mechanical apparatus used to provide a form of artificial respiration, when the virus affected a victim’s breathing.
Although efforts to find a vaccine to fight polio were well underway in 1954, those efforts were largely shrouded in secrecy. Although science was making remarkable headway in the race for a vaccine, there were still many unanswered questions. The medical community itself was somewhat divided in its thinking regarding treatment protocols and long-term implications associated with any vaccine. Politicians and the religious community also weighed in, offering opinions and pronouncements that were often vastly different. As a result, a fearful and anxious public was pretty much left to determine for itself how it would think about and react to the seasonal threat that was polio in the mid-1950s.
Progress, regardless of the field of endeavor in which it comes, often occurs in fits
and starts. It’s seldom smooth, and it rarely comes without some controversy. The treatment and prevention of polio were no exceptions.
The relative intensity of fear and the resulting diversity of thought and reaction to polio in 1954 was very real and often polarizing. In the fall of that year, this was particularly true in one small western Pennsylvania community. When a first grader was positively diagnosed with poliomyelitis the community was alarmed. The children in the elementary school were taken by bus to the nearby city hospital and given shots of a protein blood fraction known as gamma globulin. At the time gamma globulin was still in experimental trials being tested as a possible means of preventing polio. This event, frightening as it was, put this small community on a collision course with itself. In time there was a crash, and as should have been expected there were victims. Among them was the town mayor.
The mayor had weighed in. Not surprisingly his opinion differed from about half of his constituents, leaving him with a number of detractors. The resulting schism he faced ran deep. In time it was obvious that it was going to endure.
Thanks to Jonas Salk and a vaccine that was publicly available in 1955, the scourge that had been polio would be gone. Unfortunately, the stench of hatred, the ugliness of resentment, and a horrible lack of respect lingered for the mayor. Despite his best efforts to heal relationships and debunk bizarre lies, outlandish rumors with no basis in fact persisted. Virtually anything he said or did, was called into question by his detractors, and ridiculed as thoroughly and often irrationally as possible. He was also openly ignored by many who had once confided in him as their mayor and trusted him as their friend.
During a routine examination, the town doctor, a friend and supporter of the mayor, listened to the mayor lament his town’s polarization and resulting mistrust in him brought on by the polio scare in their community. After listening the doctor asked, “Do you think it might be time for you to move on?”
With no hesitation, the mayor replied, “I do, but I don’t want to feel like I’m quitting. I don’t want to give in or give up. I’ve really tried to work through this, but for some folks nothing I’ll ever do is going to be right.”
“Mr. Mayor the way you’ve been treated is nothing less than disgusting, and you deserve the opportunity to put it behind you. Moving on doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter, that you’re running away, or that you’re in over your head. Instead, it means you’re moving on with your life.”
The mayor smiled and nodded.
“Mayor, deciding to move on with your life is a lot like a trip to the outhouse. Both provide a little rest, some relief, and some peace and quiet. They each also offer an opportunity to move ahead with your life, let others move on, and well you know, leave a little c_ _p behind.”