You might also like

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A family meeting

Polio was the scourge of childhood when I grew up, and all the years before me, I’m sure.  I have a memory of absolute terror as a child, seeing a child in an iron lung on the television set at my aunt and uncle’s home. I ran to another room and didn’t return.  So that was polio.

We knew about polio.  Two brothers in our neighborhood had survived.  One wore a leg brace for his paralyzed leg.  A girl I went through every grade with wore a leg brace that extended over her hips.  No question, we were familiar with polio. 

It also was a topic of conversation among our parents.  Every mother had a theory on polio’s cause and prevention.  In our neighborhood the cause was attributed to the heat of the noonday sun.  Children were called in for lunch at noon and kept indoors until 2:00 pm, sharp.  A lot of naps were foisted off in those two hours.  “You can’t go out, you may just as well take a nap.”  Since parents were not to be argued with in that decade, it worked fairly well.  I remember being three or four and getting up repeatedly to ask my dad if I could get up yet.  He called several times to wake me when the nap was deemed over.

We grew older, the nap business actually did become unenforceable.  But, there were soap operas and baseball on the radio to while away the two hours.  Our Gal Sunday.  I Remember Mama. Our mother decided teaching something to these captive children would be a good thing, and I remember a couple of summers with the living room packed with neighborhood boys and my brothers learning red work embroidery and cross stitch.  I was the only girl in our neighborhood until I was ten and my sister was born.  Walt still makes lovely crochet work.

When Walt was eight years old, 1953, my parents had a family meeting.  His school class had been asked for volunteers to test a polio vaccine, the Salk vaccine.  Walt had asked to volunteer, my parents gave their permission.  But, they wanted his siblings to understand the gravity and possible consequences of Walt’s decision.  My head was a jumble of all their words about bravery, possible consequences, science, knowledge, good.  That iron lung crowded out all the words.  I was frightened for him and impressed by his bravery.

So, my brother Walt was a test subject for Salk vaccine.  A year or so later the vaccine was approved and we all received the shot, including Walt, because the test may or may not have been a placebo.  The cases of polio declined dramatically over the rest of the decade; today it’s essentially eradicated in the country and on most of the globe.  Children just ten years younger, like my sister, never knew their parents’ fear of the disease.  But she still had to come in and take that two hour nap.

Eight year old vaccine volunteer


  1. Okay. I admit it. I cried for your brave brother, Walt. I must be your sister's age, because I don't remember the polio scare. I do remember seeing pictures of kids in an iron lung, however. Scary! I have a good friend who survived and who struggles to this day. Thank you for this memory!

  2. What a brave little guy. Our belated thanks to him.

  3. Now that was courageous. Thank you Walt. I remember having to go to the clinic for my polio jabs - the syringe was filled with a dark pinkish liquid and was huge compared to the ones they use today.

  4. I remember in 1953, there was a boy in my class in school who'd had polio. His affected leg was very thin. I was a chubby kid and wished I would get polio so I would be thin. Being a fat kid was worse than being crippled. (For some kids, that is probably still true!) Thankfully, by the time I was a mom, the Sabin vaccine came along so my kids were immunized and I never had to think about it again.

  5. I'm so impressed with Walt! I was born in the 1960s and didn't have to worry about polio because i benefitted from the vaccine, thanks to people like Walt (and Jonas Salk!)

  6. A big thank you to Walt and to your parents. I remember the whole school being lined up for the vaccine. And having an adult who had survived polio talk to us. He wore a hip to ground brace and said that his life was very hard. It impressed us all.

  7. Yes, I remember that. My father had polio as a child. One leg was shorter, one foot smaller. He always had to buy two pairs of shoes, a pair of 9 and a pair of 11 to get one pair of shoes he could wear. I remember lining up at one of the elementary schools on a Saturday with my family to get the vaccine of a sugar cube. It was scary because it might just as well give me polio as prevent it. We know better now though.

  8. Quite amazing, your Walt. I grew up on the cusp of that period and remember lining up for anti-polio injections and later, the salk vaccine taken orally on a lump of sugar. I also remember neighbourhood kids who had one leg or another in a brace. The past may have been simpler, but there were dangers.