“You are not to go over to that house,” my mother told me in 1954. Her words reflected a parent’s concern about the polio epidemic of the 1950s.
“But Jackie’s my friend!” I protested. But my mother held firm. Jackie’s brother Mike had polio.
Polio, or infantile paralysis, was caused by a virus. While the effects of the 1950s polio epidemic do not approach the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, polio was a serious medical problem. Prior to the development of the Salk vaccine, the disease paralyzed thousands of Americans.
As it hit mostly children, it was deeply concerning to parents. A 1953 press release from the March of Dimes said there had been more cases in six years than there had been in the previous 25.
In Wilmington, six-year-old Daniel Dupras was struck by the disease in 1952. Two years later, Michael Stanley, 11, also came down with the virus. Both boys were mostly affected in the right leg. The following summer, on Aug. 13, 1955, Michael’s father, John Nelson Stanley, 35, succumbed to bulbar polio, which paralyzed the lungs.
There were 11 cases of polio in Wilmington that year. The school system opened two weeks later than normal that fall.
That was the same year that the Salk vaccine was introduced. Developed at the University of Pittsburgh by Dr. Jonas Salk, the vaccine changed everything. In the next quarter-century, polio was eliminated in the United States. As of 2017, it was only found in two countries anywhere in the world.
Polio is an ancient disease, but it only came into focus as a national problem in the 20th Century. The name Infantile Paralysis was applied as it struck most frequently among children, although many adults contracted the disease, too. Some people had developed immunity, possibly from a previous infection. There were some who had experienced a mild bout of polio and never realized it. By 1950, doctors were able to use gamma globulin, which could prevent the disease, but only on a short-term basis.
The disease brings on a high fever. If the virus invades the central nervous system, it can cause weakness or paralysis of the limbs. In the form of bulbar polio, it can paralyze the lungs.
The Dupras family bought a pony and a cart for Danny, but he did not want to use it. His sisters, though, took to horseback riding. Danny eventually was able to put aside his brace but always walked with a limp, using a cane. He died in a traffic accident in 1966.
Michael Stanley’s paralysis was not as serious as Danny’s. He always pushed himself athletically, and would often play “scrub” baseball in the neighborhood. In high school, he had the good fortune to meet math teacher Frank Kelley, founder of the Wilmington High School track program. Mike became a member of the WHS track team.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio at age 39 in 1921. More than 80 years later, a review of his illness has led to the belief that he was actually inflicted by the Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The illness left him permanently paralyzed below the waist.
Roosevelt used his financial resources to fight polio and offer support to fellow victims. After visiting the Meriwether Inn at Bullochville, Georgia, he bought it and developed it into Warm Springs, a center offering therapy for polio victims. Resuming his political career, he was twice elected governor of New York, and then in 1932, president of the United States.
He founded National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which became the March of Dimes, a charitable foundation that pursued treatments and vaccines for polio. It funded the research of Dr. Salk, who produced the vaccine that ultimately stopped polio.