Friday, May 8, 2020

Another Time When Polio Came to Grinnell

Four years ago I posted a story about how Grinnell confronted an outbreak of polio in 1952, a year that set the record for polio cases and polio deaths in the United States: more than 57,000 cases and more than 3100 deaths. Thereafter polio infections and deaths in the United States declined; 1957 recorded only about one-tenth the cases attested in 1952, and polio-caused deaths dropped even more sharply. Once public acceptance of the vaccine was common, polio practically disappeared from the United States.
Quarantine sign (Grinnell Historical Museum)
However, getting to that point proved difficult. Over the first half of the twentieth century polio regularly visited the towns and cities of the country, inciting public unease. As one report put it,
As the weather warmed up each year, panic over polio intensified. Polio swept through towns in epidemics every few years. Most often affecting children, few diseases frightened parents more than polio did ("History of Polio in Iowa,"
In 1916, for example, the US documented more than 27,000 cases of polio and more than 7,000 deaths; in 1927 there were more than 10,000 cases and over 2,000 deaths. Every year was serious, but 1927, 1931, and 1935 stood out both for the number of cases and the number of deaths. As the calendar rotated from year to year, therefore, Americans knew that, come autumn, they should expect another brutal encounter with poliomyelitis.
Quad-City Times, December 29, 1940
Iowa, too, felt these peaks in polio infections. Official data for 1910 counted 654 cases and 157 deaths, but the next year there were only 70 cases and 40 deaths; 1916, 1918, 1920, 1923, 1930, and 1937 all reported bumps in the number of cases. But it was 1940 that set the high-water mark for polio infection in pre-war Iowa: 930 confirmed cases and 72 deaths (Walter Albin Lunden, Basic Social Problems, with Selected Rural and Urban Data for Iowa [Dubuque: W. C. Brown Co., 1950], p. 133). Five of those cases and two of those deaths occurred in Grinnell, and they are the subject of today's post.
Summer in 1940 Grinnell had passed, and schools had begun when the crisis erupted. The local newspaper reported on Monday, September 16th, that a schoolboy by the name of David Peck—just twelve years old—had fallen ill the previous week while visiting grandparents in Ogden, Iowa. His condition quickly plummeted, so his parents rushed him to the Boone hospital where he died September 12th; he had been ill just four days.

The news stunned the entire community, now alert to the fact that polio had returned to Grinnell for a new assault on the city's youth. Thursday's newspaper (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 19, 1940) confirmed the sad fact by reporting that Tuesday had brought a second death to Grinnell when Raffety Greenwald, a 15-year-old high school junior, had died after a few days' struggle with polio. The newspaper report acknowledged that, in addition to the two fatalities, three other cases of infection in Grinnell were known: Ruth Jean Liggett and Jack Knowles, both of whose families lived in town, and Richard Evans, whose family farmed southwest of town.
Headline of Grinnell Herald-Register, September 23, 1940
The jolt to community well-being led officials to close school for a week. R. A. Hawk, superintendent of schools, explained that, although there was no evidence that polio had been transmitted through the schools, "persons of public school age are affected" and the parents are "in many cases panicky and hysterical" (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 23, 1940). Hawk urged parents during the school  recess to prevent children from congregating with one another, and to do what they could to make sure that their children were in the best possible health.
Grinnell's two 1940 polio deaths shocked the community, but of course they rocked the dead boys' families even more. Over the course of a few days, two local families dropped suddenly from everyday normalcy to unthinkable disaster.

David Ellis Peck [1884-1956] was a native of Taylorsville, Illinois, but attended Grinnell College from which he graduated in 1907. The following year he joined the college's music faculty where for many years he taught violin and directed the men's glee club. In 1911 he married Laura Jenkins (1883-1967) of Ogden, Iowa; she had been David's classmate at Grinnell, and had taught high school after graduation. By 1920 the Pecks were living at 1402 Elm Street with three daughters: Ruth, Kathleen, and Mary Jane.
1402 Elm Street (2013 photograph)
David Peck was busy with college duties, often performing with violin or viola as well as directing campus musical groups. Laura Peck was active in Levart Club and PEO, and also was busy at the Congregational Church. Into this active life came the family's fourth child, David Hanley, who was born June 14, 1928.
Extract from 1940 US Census for Grinnell (1402 Elm Street)
According to later reports, young David was "his father's pride and joy," "a sunny little chap" who was "very popular with his schoolmates." When census officials called on the Pecks in April 1940, David was the only child still at home, so that his death that September left an obvious hole in the Peck household. It was perhaps a good thing that Professor Peck was on leave that year; he and Laura could nurse their sorrow out of the public eye.
Gravestone for David Peck, Glenwood Cemetery, Ogden, Iowa
Raffety Greenwald was the oldest of three children born to Lois Raffety Greenwald (1898-1989) and William G. Greenwald (1896-1989), who farmed north of town.
Extract from 1940 US Census, Poweshiek County, Chester Township
Both parents were graduates of Grinnell College; Lois had grown up in Grinnell and later taught school here. They married in 1923 and had settled in New Hampton for some years before returning to the Grinnell area, taking over the Chester County farm in 1929.
Photograph of Grinnell High School Latin Club, 1940 Grinnellian; Raffety Greenwald is 3rd from right, back row
Raffety Greenwald was said to be "a conscientious student," "a quiet, unassuming chap who was well-liked." A high school junior in 1940, he took part in numerous extra-curriculars, including the award-winning band in which he played trombone. He took ill Friday night, afflicted with a sudden and obviously serious illness; he was short of breath and in obvious pain, circumstances that led his parents to summon Dr. O. F. Parish (1873-1947), who brought along his son, John (1904-1997), a 1929 graduate of Harvard Medical School who had been practicing in Grinnell. They immediately diagnosed polio, and the Greenwalds took Raffety directly to the Grinnell Community Hospital. What treatment they could provide is unclear, but the remedies proved of no help. Raff was declared dead Tuesday morning, only five days after having fallen ill. The funeral came quickly and Raffety Greenwald was buried at Hazelwood Cemetery.
Gravestone of Raffety Greenwald (1925-1940) (
In addition to their grief, the Greenwalds also had to endure quarantine on the chance that other members of the family had been infected. Raffety's younger brother, Stan, remembers that a quarantine sign was tacked onto the house by the back door; more powerful than the sign was the community information network, which shunned the Greenwalds, leaving them to deal with their grief and the suspicions of neighbors. Finally, LaVerne Raffety (1900-1995), Lois's brother, made a point of visiting, thereby breaking the social embargo on the Greenwalds. But fear of the virus continued to affect the family. Raff's sister, Ruth, learned when she returned to school that high school principal T. T. Cranny (1888-1965) had been fielding calls demanding that he get Ruth out of school. Cranny resisted these pressures, but Ruth nevertheless frequently found herself alone, other students all keeping their distance. Young Raffety was dead and buried, but his shadow lingered, his death continuing to affect the living.
The two deaths—more than Grinnell's share of Iowa's 72 polio deaths that year—put every family in town on edge. Discovery of more infections, even if not so serious as those that visited the Peck and Greenwald families, brought more anxiety to Grinnell households where polio put in an appearance. Parents inevitably asked whether their child, too, might not perish from exposure to the polio virus. Happily, all three other victims recovered, although perhaps not without harm.
Ted Liggitt (1902-1985) was a pharmacist who had been raised in Osceola, Iowa where he met Alma Stancell (1905-1995). In 1927 the couple married, and settled in Des Moines, living in an apartment on 26th Street while Ted worked in a Des Moines drug store. Their two daughters were both born in Des Moines: Ruth Jean in 1929 and Marlene Jo in 1931. By 1935 the family was living in Chariton in Lucas County, but five years later they were all resident in Grinnell, occupying an apartment at 931 High Street while Ted worked for one of the town's drug stores.
931 High Street (2020 photograph)
The Liggitts' older daughter, Ruth Jean, was another victim of the 1940 epidemic. Nothing in the public record describes the particulars of Ruth's encounter with polio. All that we know is that doctors diagnosed the eleven-year-old with what was evidently a light case from which she quickly recovered. She next surfaces as a high school student in Chariton, the town to which her family moved sometime soon after her illness.
Ruth Jean Liggitt (1947 Chariton High School Yearbook)
Ruth enjoyed singing, as the 1947 Chariton high school yearbook reports that she was a member of glee club for all four years of high school, sang operetta two years, and performed in the annual Christmas program every year. She later married Joe Seagraves and by the 1950s was living in Austin, Texas, and later in Lewisville, Texas, her parents having joined her there in their retirement. If her encounter with polio left any trace, nothing I found confirmed it. She, her sister, and her parents are all deceased, and seem to have left no remembrance of that painful September in Grinnell.
Less than one block north of the Liggitt household in Grinnell lived Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Knowles. Telling 1940 census officials that he worked as a traveling salesman, Elmer Knowles (1877-1942) was born in Michigan, as was his (second) wife, Lulu (1887-1978). Elmer's first three children—Norma; Evelyn; and Marian—had all been born in Michigan; Faith, who was born in 1915, had come when the family was living in Wisconsin. No later than 1917 they moved to Minnesota where Lois, Edwin, John (Jack), and Paul were born. Richard, the youngest, was the only child born in Iowa (1929). In 1930 the Knowles family was renting a house at 1432 Summer Street in Grinnell, but by 1940 they had moved to 1014 High Street. All the daughters except Norma (who was a local school teacher) had left the natal household to chart their own life courses.
1014 High Street (2013 photograph)
Jack Knowles was born in Stillwater, Minnesota in 1923, and arrived in Grinnell in 1927 with his family. He and his brother Paul attended Grinnell High School together; both ran cross-country and track, and Jack also participated in high school music programs. He was a 17-year-old senior when polio caught up with him. Like Ruth Liggitt, his neighbor, he recovered, although for the rest of his life he lost most use of his right arm. The disability kept him out of the military during the World War II, but did not keep him from contributing to the war during which he helped build P-51 airplanes in California. Having studied music at the University of Iowa, Jack devoted most of his career to teaching music—according to his obituary, he taught instrumental music in Oregon, Iowa, California, Montana, and Australia.
Jack Knowles (1941 Grinnellian)
Jack married twice: first in 1949 to Imogene Newcomer (1929-2012) in Grinnell, and again in 1966 to Debby Dresser. By 1969 Jack and Debby were living in Rapid City, South Dakota where Jack was band director at Rapid City Central High School. He also directed the Rapid City Municipal Band and the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra—all this with only one arm fully functional. Yet Knowles was so successful that in 2009 he won the South Dakota Governor's Award for Outstanding Service in Arts Education. On at least one occasion, however, a concert reviewer took Jack to task for using only one arm:
The orchestra conductor, Jack Knowles, plays a vital role in releasing the musicality of the orchestra. His right hand is needed for cuing and dynamic control...These visual cues not only aid the musicians...but also draw the audience's attention to the important melodies and rhythmic ideas of the music. This is not what happened Saturday night. Knowles kept time with his baton [in his left hand] while his other hand rested on the orchestral score. Occasionally, he took his hand off the score to gesture obscurely to the orchestra (Gail Samuels, "'Ritz' musicians deserve ovations," Rapid City Journal, January 27, 1997).
When readers objected to the reviewer's criticism, pointing out that Knowles suffered a disability that "anyone with the cognitive capacity of a gnat could perceive," the newspaper quickly issued an apology. However, the incident points out how Knowles's bout with polio more than fifty years earlier continued to affect him.
Rapid City Journal, January 28, 1997
Russell P. Evans (1915-1981) was born in Grinnell, and by 1940 had married, was farming outside Grinnell, and had two sons: William and Richard. Richard was only five years old when polio found him in September 1940. Apparently the initial attack was severe; his parents reported him ill on September 18th, and already the next day he was admitted to Skiff Medical Center in Newton and installed in an iron lung. Typically victims required at least two weeks of iron-lung therapy, the machine helping the weakened diaphragm. The Des Moines Register reported that young Richard was sent back home on the 22nd of September and allowed to recuperate under the watchful eye of his parents, but when recently I spoke with Evans by telephone he told me that in fact his stay in the iron lung was longer than two days. He recalled how uncomfortable he was ("it hurt like the devil!"), lying on a hard board all day. When he needed the bathroom, attendants had to open the iron lung, and then close it back up again when he returned. Friends sent him comic books, but he could turn pages only with his tongue, he said.
Undated photograph of a child in an iron lung (
I asked him whether he and his family, like the Greenwalds, had experienced any shunning from friends or neighbors. He thought not, because soon after he was released from the hospital his family moved to California. Doctors had recommended a dry climate for Richard, so his parents packed up quickly and the family settled in the Los Angeles area where they lived until Richard was about 16, moving then to Myrtle Point, Oregon, where in 1953 Richard graduated from Union High School.

Did his battle with polio in 1940 leave any trace? I wondered. The only polio legacy Richard bears today, he told me, is some difficulty with speaking; some words simply will not form, he said, but he feels fortunate that polio did no worse than that. So far as he can tell, polio did not otherwise affect him after that first brief encounter and his introduction to an iron lung.
Richard Evans (1953 Myrtle Point Union High School Yearbook)
After a one-week break, during which Grinnell absorbed the pain of two child deaths and three other polio infections, Grinnell schools reopened. As a precaution (and no doubt also to calm parental fears), each student was subjected to a physical examination before being admitted to class. Most of the town's doctors along with a clutch of nurses and volunteers inspected all students, taking temperatures and inspecting throats. About fifty students were sent to their family physicians for further examination, but not one student gave evidence of polio infection (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 30, 1940). Sixty years later one can almost hear the sigh of relief that passed through the town; the annual vigil against polio could be least until next year.
Handbook published by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., New York, [1946] (Grinnell Historical Museum, #2008.28.33)
All this makes me wonder how parents coped. In the 1940s Iowans knew little about polio, despite the almost annual crises. A Metropolitan Life Insurance handbook called Common Childhood Diseases—reprinted often in America's polio years—encouraged parents to "keep...children away from the movies, parties, crowded trains, and all public gatherings until the outbreak is over." As if this suggestion were not difficult enough, the booklet also urged parents "to keep children away from public beaches and swimming pools," and have them avoid streams, lakes, or ditches into which sewage drains. Most surprising was the assertion that "Removal of tonsils [quite common at the time--DK], extraction of teeth, or other operations in and about the nose, throat, and mouth may open new channels by which the virus can gain entrance to the body...[Therefore,] Such operations should be avoided as far as is possible during an epidemic of infantile paralysis" [p. 21].

Despite this advice, the booklet's authors had to admit that "The manner in which the infantile paralysis virus is spread is still unknown." In short, parents could only briefly celebrate having escaped tragedy in 1940; soon their eyes would turn apprehensively to next year's visit from polio.

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