Polio in 1950s parallels pandemic of 2020

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Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Gordon Allison, Jr. | Technical Engineer

You may not remember the 1952 polio epidemic, but I do. It reminds me of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Polio struck in the summers and it affected different parts of the country one year and then not the next.

People were very afraid – EVEN MORE SO THAN NOW!

Some people contracted polio, but never had any signs of it. There were two basic types of polio. One was cervical spine and the other was brain stem (Bulbar polio).


Bulbar was the worst! It paralyzed the diaphragm, preventing the lungs from functioning, usually killing the patient unless they were on a respirator. The respirators of the day were called ‘Iron Lungs.’ Large and usually black, Iron Lungs were tubular tanks about 20 inches in diameter and around six feet long. Under the tank was a bellows, driven by a motor, and a gearbox assembly that pumped the bellows.

The patients were often young people. Their heads stuck out one end. In early models, heads rested on a leather sling, stretched between two rods. A rubber gasket near the patient’s neck sealed the tank from losing pressure as the patient lay on his or her back. This was a 24/7 ordeal!

The Iron Lungs had windows for doctors and nurses to view what was going on with the patient. Two sets of built-in gloves ran down the side of the tank, allowing nurses to attend to the patient. The price of one iron lung was $1,300 – about the same price of an average house back then!

In 1952, I was about 10 years old. My family lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two brothers and I played with the children of a family three doors up the street, whose mother was our mother’s best friend. Little Freddy came down with Bulbar polio and died. This was tragic, especially when it was happening to such young people!

His family doctor recommended that anyone who had been in contact with their family be injected with Gamma Gobulin (GG) as a possible preventative against polio. The county health department made available 80 or 90 cc’s of Gamma Gobulin for the three Allison boys and our Mom.

Dad took us to get the GG and then to our family doctor for the injections. Ouch! Each of the boys got about 20 cc’s of the serum administered with a #18 needle – into our fannies! Mom got the rest! Mom was able to sit down in the front seat of our family’s 1949 Chevy four-door. The three boys hung our arms over the front passenger area for the entire trip home (no seat belts back then!). Yes, it hurt so much that we couldn’t sit down!!

Many years later, my wife Patty convinced me to donate blood, as she did from time to time.

To my surprise, my blood donation was rejected for having Hepatitis antibodies. The medical doctor in charge of the Blood Bank suggested the antibodies appeared to be quite old. I asked about the possibility that the injection of GG in the summer of 1952 could be the cause of my blood reflecting Hepatitis?  (In 1952, GG was made from blood, not DNA-manufactured as it is today.) The doctor acknowledged that it was likely.

The blood bank doctor also answered my question as to whether Patty could receive a donation from me without any ill effects. She said, “Yes,” even though I was not allowed to donate blood!

As is the case with Covid-19, some populations of citizens didn’t get polio because of circumstances. Back in 1952, it was immigrant children living in unsanitary conditions who rarely got the disease. The kids living in clean homes were the ones most likely to get polio!

Switzerland is an example of today. The Swiss people are not known for being demonstrative of their affections. Nor do they crowd into cities. They lead more bucolic lifestyles. Therefore, the Covid-19 policy in Switzerland has been to let people go about their normal lives. Even with typical and usual interaction, the virus has not spread throughout their country. The interactions may act to provide some immunity until the Covid-19 equivalent of the Sabine vaccine – which eliminated polio in the 1950s – becomes available.