Polio: Before the vaccine

— by Ann G.
This October 28 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jonas Salk, who developed the first safe and successful polio vaccine (the library is celebrating this milestone limping through lifewith a program called Polio Then and Now: From Salk’s Game-Changing Vaccine to Today’s Resurgence on Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Central Library and a related booklist). It’s hard to imagine now the terrible and pervasive fear that polio inspired, but if you imagine that at its height in the 1940s and 50s, half a million people a year were paralyzed or killed by it worldwide, you start to get some idea.

Even if you survived polio, it was often life-changing. There are a number of powerful and poignant memoirs and histories that relate its aftermath. In Limping Through Life: A Farm Boy’s Polio Memoir, Jerry Apps recounts the night that his life changed forever as he felt the first symptoms of polio. At age 12, he had to readjust his expectations for his entire life; in fact, the effects of the virus followed him through his military service, college years and beyond, eventually positively contributing to his decision to become a writer.

Credit: WHO Photo by Dominique Darbois: Shigenori Kameyama, from Tsukuni on Kyushu Island in Japan, was one year old when he got polio. His family moved to Tokyo and in 1937 was admitted to a hospital and school where he began the long battle to regain partial use of his limbs. After two years of patient endeavor by Shigenori and his nurses, he manages to make one uncertain step forward on crutches.  “I can’t, I really can’t,”  his expression seems to say.  Then comes triumph!  Shigenori manages to hobble forward a distance of five feet.

Credit: WHO Photo by Dominique Darbois: Shigenori Kameyama, from Tsukuni on Kyushu Island in Japan, was one year old when he got polio. His family moved to Tokyo and in 1937 was admitted to a hospital and school where he began the long battle to regain partial use of his limbs. After two years of patient endeavor by Shigenori and his nurses, he manages to make one uncertain step forward on crutches. Soon after this photo was taken, he went a distance of five feet.

A fascinating history is that of the various remedies and treatments that were attempted to fight the disease (the most famous of which was to place patients inside an iron lung, in which they might live for years). In a bold challenge to the accepted practice, Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny took the United States by storm with her proposing that techniques such as muscle massage and heat packs. The Polio Wars: Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine recounts the reaction to Kenny’s innovation, both by the medical establishment, and desperate parents and people with polio.

Also, remember that polio accounts don’t have to be non-fiction—there are some great novels centering around polio’s impact. The Master’s Muse: A Novel enters the real-life marriage of the choreographer genius George Balanchine to Tanaquil LeClercq, a dancer in his company who was stricken with polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Author O’Connor is the daughter of a polio survivor, and one reviewer felt this book was akin to “the memoir LeClercq never wrote.” And no less a master than Philip Roth wrote about how polio affected one neighborhood, in his work Nemesis.

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One Response to Polio: Before the vaccine

  1. Pingback: Polio: Ongoing challenges | Shelf Talk

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