Poliomyelitis (also known as infantile paralysis, and most commonly as polio) is a virus that hit at least one part of the United States every summer beginning in the early 1900s. In the sweltering summer of 1944, one localized polio epidemic attacked the Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey, called Weehuahic. Philip Roth’s last novel, Nemesis, was written about that fatal time, when deaths rose into the thousands. I was born in 1950 and polio was rare where I grew up in Manhattan—until 1952, when an epidemic raged throughout New York City with merciless speed. Children over the age of six months were at the greatest risk. Whole families were quarantined, and everyone was cautioned to avoid drinking from public water fountains, swimming in public pools and otherwise gathering in public.
“Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed,” wrote the historian Richard Rhodes.
By the time I was 4 years old, polio was a fact of life (and death), an inevitability and as big a nightmare for me as the fear of World War III. Photographs of children, mostly aged 5 to 9, encased in huge mechanical monstrous pods known as iron lungs, which helped them breathe (and actually saved many lives) ran in Life and other magazines. The odds of a paralytic outcome were one in a thousand, so it was common to see children in school (indeed, two in my third grade class) bravely struggling down the corridors or up the staircases on their crutches.
Between 1955 and 1957, two vaccines—the (Jonas) Salk and the (Albert) Sabin vaccines—were successfully developed and provided for immunizations, sponsored by the March of Dimes. I still remember being in a line with my classmates waiting, with fear in my gut and tears welling up as the swab of alcohol was applied to my arm. Then the painful pinch of the needle. I also remember the posters hanging throughout the school and Post Offices urging immunization (some of these were created through a 1949 Museum of Modern Art polio poster competition organized by curator Mildred Constantine). A few years later we were all given a cube of sugar containing Sabin’s oral vaccine.
Despite the long quarantine periods, hospital stays and other de-socializing precautions, it was impossible to be entirely removed from the populace at large. But controlling the spread of the virus had successfully limited the contagion.
I wonder what it would have been like had we then had the digital tools for remote working. The iron lung was invented to address the inevitable. Social media and online conferencing, although not intended to thwart pandemics, certainly are available at the right time.
As I sit at home in lockdown, rarely venturing out, I recall those traumatizing moments as a child, when for a week or two at a time, my friends and I were kept at home, unable to have any contact whatsoever, while my parents continued to go to work every day to jobs that might easily have been done at home, if we had computers.
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