A young girl with polio in an iron lung.

If you woke up this morning with fear and trepidation over the coronavirus pandemic, you already know firsthand exactly how our Mothers and Grandmothers felt during the years that polio ravaged neighborhoods and cities across America. Those of us who lived through the polio epidemic of the 1920’s-1950’s know that fear first hand.  Like COVID-19, polio struck down infants to adults; President Roosevelt at age 39 succumbed to polio ending up with both legs paralyzed for life.

The disease poliomyelitis, polio for short, was also called infantile paralysis.  Parents watched their children closely as did my Mother observe my brother, sister and I for signs of the disease. Parents were told to look for these signs or symptoms  (which often lasted up to 10 days:)  fever; sore throat; headache; vomiting; fatigue; back pain or stiffness; neck pain or stiffness ; pain or stiffness in arms or legs; muscle weakness or tenderness.

According to the Mayo Clinic, polio is a contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death. The last case of naturally occurring polio in the U. S. was in 1979.  Despite a worldwide effort to wipe out polio, the polio virus continues to affect children and adults in parts of Asia and Africa. 

Carl Kurlander, University of Pittsburgh, writing for the Discovery Magazine’s April 2, 2020,  issue wrote, “ Like a horror movie, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the polio virus arrived each summer, striking without warning. No one knew how polio was transmitted or what caused it. There were wild theories that the virus spread from imported bananas or stray cats. There was no known cure or vaccine.”  The disease has never been eradicated; it can only be prevented.

During the years from 1920 through 1940,  swimming pools and movie theaters closed during polio season for fear of this invisible enemy. Parents stopped sending their children to playgrounds or birthday parties for fear they would “catch polio.”

Polio often seemed to strike during the summer months June through August.  Schools were never shut down during the height of the epidemic neither were churches.  The similarities to COVID-19 are startling.  Had both schools and churches shut down, the virus may have been contained.  Polio struck down children here in Barbourville as well as in big cities like Louisville.  In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the poliovirus; thousands were left paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died.

Resources for this article came from: CDC, Discover Magazine and NPR.                                

Dora Sue Oxendine Farmer can be contacted at or 606-546-3940.

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