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When Polio Was Defeated by a Vaccine…and a Seven-Year-Old Girl

She remembers the “hot packs”–towels soaked in boiling water, wrung out, then wrapped around her legs. She remembers the blisters.

She remembers the endless hours of physical therapy, the manipulation of her limbs, especially her right leg, the one affected by polio.

She also remembers the kindness of her doctors and nurses, the friendships she developed with the other patients, her eighth birthday party, and how as the youngest girl in the ward she was the object of much affectionate attention.

Elaine Webb (left), age 7, in the New Orleans Charity Hospital Kenny Unit. Courtesy Elaine Webb.

It began suddenly with the onset of a fever that left her weak and barely able to stand. Her mother called the family doctor, who in that winter of 1943 immediately suspected what was ailing the frightened child. He had seen it before–not many times in the rural community of Greensburg, Louisiana, but enough to know that the girl needed medical attention, and quickly. The Sheriff of St. Helena Parish was summoned, and he dispatched his daughter to rush the child to Charity Hospital in New Orleans, ninety miles away.

She remembers being separated that night from everyone she knew and loved.

 

Polio epidemics were a terrifying menace in the first half of the 20th century, a lurking danger prone to afflicting children, although not exclusively. Franklin D. Roosevelt, polio’s most prominent victim, was 39 when he contracted the disease. The poliomyelitis virus attacked the spinal cord, most often affecting the ability to walk. In the worst cases, the patient could no longer breathe on his or her own and so was placed in an “iron lung,” a metal cylinder that used negative air pressure to force air in and out of the victim’s lungs.

Not surprisingly there was also a good deal of concentrated research on polio and several significant fundraising campaigns to provide support for that work. Most notable among these was the March of Dimes, which was founded by President Roosevelt in 1938. Here’s a 1948 appeal shown in movie theaters starring Margaret O’Brien. It was preserved from a nitrate print donated by the Ohio Historical Society, and although incomplete, is a good example of the type of appeal that filmgoers saw on a regular basis.

Time Out for Margaret (The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, 1948)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

 

Report of the New Orleans Charity Hospital Kenny Unit, 1943-1944. Elaine Webb is in the middle wheelchair, partially obscured. Full report available at https://archive.org/details/CharityHospitalReport1943-1944.

The girl from Greensburg–Elaine Webb, my aunt–was, relatively speaking, one of the lucky ones. Only her right leg was affected and she was fortunate that her convalescence occurred at the Kenny Unit at Charity Hospital, a special section established in 1942 to treat any polio patient in Louisiana (including African-Americans, although the wards were strictly segregated). The Unit was named for Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who in the 1930s advocated the then-controversial practice of treating polio victims with physical therapy rather than immobilizing them.

As the fifth of nine children–the youngest was born while Elaine was hospitalized–she received plenty of visitors on the weekends, which is the only time guests were admitted. She stayed in the Kenny Unit for nearly a year, finally going home to Greensburg in late 1944. Her physical rehabilitation continued for many more years, mostly her mother laying her out on the big dining room table, moving her right leg up and down repeatedly every day.

The breakthrough in polio research came a few years later with the development of a vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk made from inactivated viruses. The Salk vaccine underwent extensive field tests in 1954 and 1955, and these were successful enough that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) announced on 12 April 1955 that the vaccine was being approved for wider application. Unfortunately, batches of the vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories in California contained live viruses; 40,000 children contracted polio after being vaccinated, two hundred were permanently paralyzed, and there were ten fatalities.

This was, obviously, a public health disaster of the highest magnitude, so HEW increased their oversight of vaccine producers. Soon, the department was ready to re-launch the program, and on 18 June 1955, HEW Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby and Surgeon General Leonard Scheele were given fifteen minutes airtime on all the television networks to talk about the vaccine and assuage concerns about its safety; we acquired a 16mm kinescope of that broadcast from an anonymous donor many years ago. Their message worked and vaccines began to be administered widely again, although Hobby–her relationship with Congress in tatters–resigned a few weeks after.

A Special Report on Polio (United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1955)

If you want to download this video, right-click here and Save As.

Today, because of the Salk vaccine and another one developed by Dr. Alfred Sabin, polio is practically non-existent. Aunt Elaine went on to get her Doctorate in Education from Louisiana State University and for many years was on the faculty of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She’s long retired and lives in Baton Rouge, two houses down from my mother (number six of the Webb brood). Her fudge is mightily addictive.

Her nieces and nephews–and there are many of us–hardly notice her limp, the lingering reminder of her childhood battle with polio.

6 Comments

  1. Lori Brocato LeBlanc
    October 28, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Thank you so much Mike for sharing this story about Aunt Elaine. It shed light on a story I knew very little about. And YES her fudge is the best!

  2. Mitch Gerber
    October 29, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Is there any surviving footage of the Salk-vaccine announcement itself, at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955? (“Young man, a great tragedy has befallen you,” Edward R. Murrow told Jonas Salk that day. “You’ve lost your anonymity.”)

  3. Marcos Sueiro, WNYC Archives
    October 29, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Great story! Here is another heartbreaking (and uplifting) polio story –enjoy!

    http://www.wnyc.org/story/the-reign-of-a-queen/

    Keep up the great work

  4. Mike Mashon
    November 3, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Good question, Mitch. I had wondered that myself. The closest we come is a “Great Headlines of the Century” 16mm compilation about the Salk vaccine, but the UCLA Film and Television Archive has a “News of the Day” newsreel (Vol. 26, No. 267) with more extensive coverage of the Ann Arbor announcement.

  5. Angela S. Adams
    January 18, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Thank you for this intriguing article and the wonderful videos, as I am working on a research paper concerning the development of the polio vaccine and these videos are excellent primary sources!

  6. Kareem Abdul Jabar
    November 19, 2019 at 11:59 am

    I found this very helpful for my basketball career. My brother has polio and to understand the history and how it heals to have polio is truly life changing

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