Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When Polio Came to Grinnell...

Apparently polio viruses have long plagued human populations, but no major outbreaks were recorded in the U.S. until the late nineteenth century. Increasing urbanization seems to have aided the spread of the virus, and during the twentieth century poliomyelitis became one of the country's most feared illnesses. The development of successful vaccines in the 1950s led to the eradication of polio in the United States, and a gradual elimination of the disease across most of the world (although the virus today remains endemic in northern Nigeria and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border).

Before this victory, however, polio proved to be a potent infection. In 1952 alone, according to official data, more than 60,000 American children were infected and more than 3000 of them died from the disease. In the absence of any effective drugs (prior to the discovery of the polio vaccine), treatment often relied upon iron lungs—a mechanism intended to assist victims whose phrenic nerves had been compromised by the disease. Sometimes constructed to house multiple patients, only the heads and necks of the victims protruding, iron lungs constitute one of the enduring images of an age now happily visible only in America's rear-view mirror.
1937 photo of unidentified iron lung facility
Like other posts in this blog, the story of polio reminds us that "things were not always the way they are now." In the absence of the disease around us, we sometimes forget that not so long ago polio prevailed even in Grinnell, Iowa, periodically bringing fear—and death—in its wake. In 1952, for example, when polio outbreaks were recorded all across the country, Grinnell had to face up to the grim consequences of the disease.
Late summer seems to have been the most fertile time for transmission of the polio virus, with announcement of new infections often beginning around Labor Day. In 1952 the first Grinnell case was identified in the August 28 edition of the Grinnell Herald-Register, which reported that Joe Pinder, 20-month-old son of the paper's publishers (Al and Dorothy Pinder), was Grinnell's first polio victim that year. Young Joe was taken immediately to Blank Memorial Hospital in Des Moines where he was described as in "good" condition; within a couple of days he was transferred to a "post-polio ward."

The next issue of the newspaper—Labor Day, September 1, 1952—carried news of the town's second case, this time affecting Karla Mae Kingsley, eleven-year-old daughter of Rev. & Mrs. C. E. Kingsley (Rev. Kingsley was pastor of First Baptist Church). Like the young Joe Pinder, Karla was immediately sent to Blank Hospital and confined to the polio isolation ward. The newspaper also carried word of other county residents who had contracted the disease, including two girls from Brooklyn who were sent to Iowa City hospitals.
Karla Kingsley, 1959 Grinnellian
Thursday brought news of yet another case: 19-month-old Michael Chase, second son of Rowland and Josephine Chase, who lived at 1411 West Street. Mrs. Chase accompanied her son to the hospital in Des Moines, and elected to stay there with her boy. The next issue of the newspaper, September 8, reported the sad news that Mrs. Chase herself had contracted polio, and had been sent to Iowa Lutheran hospital, where her condition was described as "satisfactory"; little Michael remained in the isolation ward at Blank. Meanwhile, Karla Kingsley was freed from isolation, and Joe Pinder was moved to Iowa Lutheran to relieve crowding from polio patients at Blank.
Grinnell Herald-Register, September 11, 1952, p. 1
By the time the next issue of the semi-weekly newspaper appeared—September 11—Mrs. Chase was dead, having succumbed to polio the day after her illness was first reported and only four days after she fell ill.  Thirty-four years of age at the time of her death, Josephine Chase left behind a husband and two youngsters—Christopher (3 1/2 yrs.) and Michael, who was released from Blank Hospital's polio ward the same day his mother died (but who immediately contracted pneumonia).

By the middle of September, the Herald-Register had quite a lot of polio news to report. Two more cases in town had been confirmed, both affecting teenagers: Joel Prescott, 13, and Jimmy Urfer, 16. Prescott  and his mother went to Blank Memorial while Urfer and his mother went to Iowa Lutheran. The newspaper also reported on a Newton boy who had been diagnosed with polio in Grinnell before being sent to Des Moines.
Joel Prescott, 1957 Grinnellian

James Urfer, 1954 Grinnellian
The rest of the news on September 15 was more encouraging. Karla Kingsley had been released from the hospital and sent home where she was "under a schedule of hot baths, exercises and rest at home." Her parents advised friends who wanted to visit to restrict their calls to the hour between 3 and 4 PM so as not to interfere with the therapy regime.  Michael Chase, the toddler whose mother had died a few days before, was now reported free of the oxygen tent into which he'd been put when pneumonia presented. Joe Pinder, the first case that the newspaper reported, was "improving slowly," according to doctors.

Thursday's edition of the Herald-Register had more good news: Joel Prescott, hospitalized a few days earlier, had been released to his parents at home where he was confined to bed for a week and urged to follow doctors' advice to "take it easy." Like Karla Kingsley, Joel was to have "hot baths, exercises and plenty of rest." Jimmy Urfer remained in the isolation ward at Iowa Lutheran, but doctors described his condition as "good." The only down note in this week's report was mention of another new case in Brooklyn: five-year-old Larry Andes was taken to Iowa City because of a polio diagnosis.

The fourth week of the polio outbreak brought news, both good and bad. On the bright side, the newspaper reported that teenager Jimmy Urfer had been moved from the isolation ward at Iowa Lutheran, and was getting along "just fine." Even better, the 19-month-old toddler, Michael Chase, was released from the hospital and sent home. Like others, the little boy was receiving lots of rest and therapy, his grandmother from New Jersey having elected to remain with the Chase family to pick up the slack caused by the death of Michael's mother.

Less happy was the report that Thomas Armstrong, a 26-year-old who was a student at Drake University, had been admitted to the Des Moines Veterans hospital because of polio. According to his parents, the young man's eyes and legs were affected by the disease and he was "quite ill" and kept in the isolation ward.
Thomas Armstrong, 1944 Grinnellian
As September crawled to a close and temperatures cooled, polio news in the Herald-Register gradually occupied less newsprint. On the 25th, the paper identified yet another victim—a 21-year-old nurse, Carolyn Jackson—who was taken to Iowa City with what doctors described as a "mild case" of polio. The several cases from Brooklyn all yielded good news: the two girls who had been hospitalized earlier in the month were released, and five-year-old Larry Andes, whose right leg had suffered an attack from polio, was freed from the isolation ward.

The newspaper's last September issue carried alarming reports of still more cases of infection. A 25-year-old woman—Mrs. Raymond Vogt—who lived on a farm four miles east of Grinnell had been hospitalized several days earlier, but was only diagnosed with polio the day before the newspaper was published. She was sent to Iowa Lutheran on Sunday and immediately installed in the isolation ward. The previous day still another youngster, John O'Connor (six years old), was sent to Iowa City with what doctors described as a "light" case of polio, and was reported to be "feeling fine."
Gail Vogt (Grinnell Herald Register May 1, 2003)
With the arrival of October, polio began to disappear from the Grinnell newspaper. An early killing frost, reported in the first issue of the month, may have undermined the virus's potency; at any rate, notice of new infections was rare. But reports on those who had contracted the disease earlier sometimes interrupted the apparent calm. The headline on the front page of the October 2nd issue of the Herald-Register carried the alarming news that Mrs. Vogt's condition had slipped to "critical," and doctors had put her on a ventilator. More happily, the newspaper announced that both Jimmy Urfer and John O'Connor had been released from hospital and sent home. Urfer was said to feel "fine," hoping to get back to school soon, even though he felt a "slight weakness in [his] left leg." Doctors prescribed "Exercises, warm baths and possibly other [undefined] therapy," just as doctors had done for previous Grinnell victims of the disease. O'Connor's circumstances were not reported.

Only one new case cast a shadow over the newspaper's October reporting: on October 30 the Herald-Register announced that 15-year-old Eugene Kaisand had been diagnosed with polio and sent to Blank Memorial in Des Moines.
The Herald-Register had little else to say about polio beyond the reports of infection. Occasionally the paper provided guidelines for  how the public might deal with the virus, but these articles were understandably anodyne; after all, there was no cure for the disease, and the exact means of transmission was not clearly understood. This uncertainty seems to have prompted some to propose that the schools close so as to prevent further spread of the illness, but a September 18 article reported that the city physician, the state board of health, and the superintendent of schools all agreed to keep the schools open. As the city official pointed out, "There is no quarantine prescribed for polio and spraying or fumigation [is] not recommended." The Grinnell school nurse, Mrs. George Coop, who had just taken the job the previous year, was enjoined to study each case and keep "a check on the polio situation."
Grinnell Herald-Register August 30, 1951
The next week's paper urged "precautionary measures rather than hysteria as the way to deal with a polio situation like Grinnell's." The article attributed these words to Mrs. Coop, the school nurse who had apparently collected them from a recent conference in Ames on preventable diseases. The precautions, however, were few and vague. The first was to "reduce the number of contacts you make daily," which might well have been unnecessary advice if there were any hysteria. The second piece of advice had been wrung from numerous other public health campaigns: "keep hands as clean as possible." After this, the suggestions grew even vaguer: children were urged to eat breakfast; everyone was advised to "avoid over-fatigue" and get relaxation as well as sleep.  If, after following all this advice, one still presented symptoms, the instructions counseled people to call a physician as soon as possible.

The newspaper also reported on homey efforts to support "the polio fund." One issue told of a "song and dance show" put on by three girls, who ranged in age from 7 to 11; convened on the back porch of the David Johnson house at 935 Spring Street, the event netted $5 from a "free-will offering" that went to the March of Dimes. A few days earlier three other girls charged children a nickel or a penny to attend their "song and dance recital," which also included an acrobatic dancer. Their show gathered $1 for polio.

In other respects, however, the newspaper told of life pursuing its usual courses: parishioners of St. Mary's Catholic church celebrated twenty-five years in their building and bid fond farewell to their priest; Grinnell High School announced cast selections for the autumn production of "Arsenic and Old Lace"; a new cafe opened on State Street; a man was hired to teach typing at the High School; the Herald-Register conducted a contest aimed at increasing subscriptions; the new sewage disposal plant west of town offered tours; and the city water softener went on the blitz.

Against this backdrop of normalcy, the Herald-Register also reported on the visit of Republican presidential candidate, Dwight David Eisenhower, whose whistle-stop campaign brought him to Grinnell early afternoon, September 18. Merchants excitedly prepared and advertised "Welcome, Ike!" specials, intended to capitalize upon the crowds expected for the 15-minute stop in Grinnell. All stores would close from 1 to 2 PM so that everyone could assemble near the tracks on Broad Street when the candidate's train stopped at 1:25 PM.

Presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower speaks to a crowd from a train stopped at Broad St.
(Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 22, 1952)
Once September had passed, news of polio also passed from the pages of the town newspaper. Next summer would bring more illness, more anxiety, and more news coverage, but until large numbers of children could benefit from the vaccines then still being developed, polio remained a latent threat and unwelcome visitor to town.

For those who in 1952 had come face to face with the virus, however, life was never the same. Those whose cases had been mild and from which they quickly recovered, endured long-lasting, often minor consequences—weakness in a limb, perhaps, or some other reminder of polio. Families whose encounter was more serious had equally serious consequences with which to contend. Mrs. Raymond Vogt, whom I had the pleasure to meet many years after her bout with polio, was left crippled, and confined to a wheelchair for the next several decades. The family of Mrs. Rowland Chase had other battles to fight. Happily, young Michael Chase seems to have recovered from his encounter, but he and his brother lost a mother whom they probably never could recall; their father lost his wife.

Other consequences, less visible but perhaps no less important, accompanied the survivors and their families. Had their friends and neighbors come to help when the dreaded disease appeared, or had fear driven apart friendships formed in easier times? Had school chums shunned those children who had contracted the disease once they had recovered and returned to school? Had high school romances hit the rocks when interrupted by polio's attack?

Answers to none of these questions appear in the public record, so I investigated the oral histories taken from twenty Grinnell seniors in 1992. There was only one mention of polio--a mistake about childhood shots; not even Dr. Parish gave voice to the polio plague and what it meant to Grinnell.  Probably for these folk, no less than for the rest of us, introduction of effective vaccines allowed memories of the struggle to disappear. Consequently, sixty-four years after the 1952 polio outbreak, in a time when no one contracts polio here, we can only wonder how Grinnell dealt with the unwelcome visitor. 

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