44 Grim Photos That Show The Brutal Reality Of Mid-Century America’s Polio Epidemics
By Austin Harvey | Edited By John Kuroski
Published September 25, 2022
Updated September 26, 2022
Polio epidemics plagued America as early as the 1890s, but by far the most destructive outbreak occurred in 1952 — leaving tens of thousands paralyzed, in iron lungs, or dead.
It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time not all that long ago when a polio epidemic was all but guaranteed to ravage America about once a year. In a post-vaccine world, the polio epidemic has been off most Americans’ radar for the better part of 60 years, but in the mid-1900s, it spread at an alarming rate, especially in children.
At its peak in the United States in 1952, the polio epidemic resulted in 20,000 cases of infant paralysis. Many people were confined to the infamous iron lung, others to wheelchairs, braces, and crutches. Meanwhile, the disease famously crippled none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It wasn’t until 1953 that any hope surfaced, when Jonas Salk first announced that he had created a successful vaccine for polio. And within a decade, polio cases in the U.S. decreased to the point of near non-existence.
But there was indeed a time, just a few short decades ago, when hospitals were filled with paralyzed children as far as the eye could see and it looked as if there was no hope against polio’s reign of terror.
A patient being treated during the Rhode Island polio epidemic in 1960. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A polio victim in an iron lung using his chin to press a button and turn the page of his book on microfilm. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Getty Images
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Two little girls in iron lungs while their family looks in through the window.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A group of mothers and their children evacuating New York during the polio epidemic in 1916.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A March for Dimes campaign billboard. The Denver Post/Getty Images
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Attendants from the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami adjusting a portable lung on a girl who was stricken with polio while visiting the naval base in Key West.Bettmann/Getty Images
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An 18-year-old polio victim at Baltimore's Children's Hospital who taught herself to write using her teeth to guide the glass tube and pencil. She wrote, "I am helping the polio epidemic drive. Are you?"Bettmann/Getty Images
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Young girls being moved from their quarters in Hickory, North Carolina, before they begin the 60-mile journey to a new facility in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In total, 89 patients were moved in 75 cars and 13 ambulances.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A woman carrying her polio-stricken baby to an ambulance during the 1916 polio epidemic.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A girl in an iron lung at her birthday party. Keystone/Getty Images
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Polio victim Larry Montoya at the airport with cases of the Sabin vaccine, which he helped to distribute as part of the polio vaccination campaign.John McBride/San Francisco Chronicle/ Getty Images
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A boy wheelchair-bound by polio spraying flowers with insecticide.Genevieve Naylor/Corbis/Getty Images
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A four-year-old polio victim falling, getting up on crutches, and being taught to walk upstairs. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty Images
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Two workers carry a young polio victim into a polio rehabilitation facility. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty Image
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A woman in a "chestpirator," a portable iron lung in Boston, 1949.Photoquest/Getty Images
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A child in an updated, portable iron lung speaking to an older woman in a traditional iron lung. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A poster from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.Fotosearch/Getty Images
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A polio victim in an iron lung using a special mirror setup to watch television. Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images
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American swimmer Eleanor Holm teaching handicapped children how to swim at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, a unit of the New York University Bellevue Medical Center.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Sergeant Vincent Keslik, 25, undergoing Hubbard Tank treatment at Percy Jones Army Hospital six months after he contracted the disease in Korea. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A child suffering from Infantile Paralysis learning to walk. George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images
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A portable respirator used to help polio victims. Hans Meyer/BIPs/Getty Images
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Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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Polio victim Fred Snite Jr. and his family in a bus that had been specifically constructed to let him look outside while stuck in an iron lung. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A lobbycard for the 1939 film, Hidden Power, starring Dickie Moore, Jack Holt, and Holmes Herbert.LMPC/Getty Images
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A boy with polio using crutches and his wheelchair-bound father. Genevieve Naylor/Corbis/Getty Images
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Special casts were sometimes put on the legs of children who contracted polio to prevent them from becoming deformed.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A room full of children in iron lungs at Baltimore's Children's Hospital.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Two polio patients from Akron, Ohio, share a March of Dimes "rocking bed" that allows them to breathe without the need for an iron lung. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Jonas Salk holding two bottles of his polio vaccine.Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Rosemary Handforth (left) and Barbara Carter (right) — two polio victims who had previously been confined to iron lungs. Money raised by the March of Dimes helped doctors at Rancho Los Amigos Respiratory Center in Hondo, California, to rehabilitate the patients. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Polio patients at the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1952.Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty Images
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Polio patient Fred Snite in a later rendition of the iron lung, which was far less confined and allowed patients to go outside. Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
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Actress Judy Holliday, who was a polio victim as a child, and four-year-old Debby Dains, the March of Dimes poster boy. Bettmann/Getty Images
"This is fun!" — Doctors handed out lollipops to children who received the polio vaccine. H. Armstrong Roberts/Classicstock/Getty Images
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Dr. William S. Burgoyne gives a shot of the Salk polio vaccine to a group of children in San Diego. After the FDA approved the polio vaccine, 300,000 children in San Diego alone received a dose. Getty Images
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Jonas Salk distributing doses of the oral polio vaccine.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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An Emergency Citizens Group member during the polio eradication campaign in the 1960s.CDC/S. Smith/Getty Images
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A crowd of people in Florida — mostly children — taking the oral polio vaccine created by Albert Sabin.Lynn Pelham/Getty Images
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People in Columbus, Georgia, waiting to receive the polio vaccination during the National Polio Immunization Program in 1973. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
44 Grim Photos That Show The Brutal Reality Of Mid-Century America’s Polio Epidemics
How The Polio Epidemic Started
The first recorded instance of a polio outbreak in the United States was a fairly small-scale one. According to NPR, the first American polio outbreak occurred in Vermont in 1894, with only a total of 132 cases.
Only 20 years later, though, a second outbreak in New York in 1916 saw the total number of cases skyrocket to more than 27,000, with 6,000 people dying of the disease.
The rapidly rising rates of polio spawned a major health crisis across the country, marking a significant shift in the way Americans viewed public health and disability.
In 1920, Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease — 12 years before he was elected president — and though he openly acknowledged it, he withheld how much the disease had truly affected him. Only his commitment to protecting Americans from his own fate suggested just how affected he was.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesPresident Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking to two children at the Warm Springs Foundation.
In 1938, he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and helped to spearhead the March of Dimes for polio research.
It wasn't until 1946, however, that polio was declared a threat to the United States by President Harry Truman. During a broadcasted speech, Truman called on all Americans to help fight back against the disease.
"It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land," he said. "For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war."
The Epidemic Of 1948 To 1955
By the late '40s, the war against polio had officially begun — and polio was fighting back, hard.
According to Mayo Clinic, there had been several large polio epidemics between 1948 and 1955, causing people to avoid public gatherings out of fear.
Some parents stopped letting their children play with new friends and checked them regularly for symptoms.
People who fell ill with polio were treated in isolation wards in short-staffed hospitals where doctors and nurses worked long, arduous hours. Patients whose breathing muscles became paralyzed were placed inside large machines called iron lungs" to help them breathe.
At the time, there were nearly 16,000 cases of polio each year in the United States.
The number of polio cases reached a crescendo in 1952, with nearly 60,000 children infected with the virus, thousands paralyzed, and more than 3,000 dead.
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty ImagesIn November 1951, Marilyn Anne Hopper was born to Lily Anne Hopper, who was in an iron lung.
The next year, in 1953, Jonas Salk and researchers from the University of Pittsburgh announced that they had developed a successful vaccination against the disease.
The Vaccine Ends The Polio Epidemic, But The Disease Returns
Before Salk and his team successfully created a vaccine against polio, there had been several other, less successful attempts at creating one.
Notably, one trial at New York University saw two researchers test their vaccine on 10,000 children. In the end, none of the children were immunized, and nine of them died. Other trials used "volunteers" from mental health facilities.
According to HISTORY, Salk had first begun testing the vaccine on himself and his family, as well as on former polio patients, when he announced its efficacy in 1953.
Shortly after, in 1954, he conducted what was then the world's largest clinical trial, injecting 1.3 million schoolchildren with the vaccine. In 1955, it was announced that the vaccine was effective and safe, and the national vaccine campaign began.
However, one batch of the vaccine developed by Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, California was defective, and after being given to roughly 200,000 people, thousands reported polio cases, 200 children were paralyzed, and 10 died.
At the same time, Polish-American researcher Albert Sabin had been developing what he considered to be a superior vaccine — one that only required two drops in a child's mouth to immunize them. He couldn't gain the political support he need in America, however, and so took his research to the Soviet Union.
Bettmann/Getty ImagesAlbert Bruce Sabin, of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, holding a vial of the oral vaccine that ended the polio epidemic.
In the end, Sabin's oral vaccine was instrumental in the global vaccination campaign that followed, helping to nearly eradicate polio in the western hemisphere, and Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
Data from the CDC shows that yearly polio rates in the U.S. dropped to less than 100 by the 1960s, and to less than 10 by the 1970s.
Since 1979, no cases of polio in the U.S. have been caused by a wild strain of polio. The Americas were declared free of polio in 1994, but in August 2022, an individual in New York died of the disease.
Further testing on the area's wastewater showed that the virus had been quietly circulating in a couple New York counties since at least May 2022. Researchers have since connected the growing outbreak to low vaccination rates in the region.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a bachelor's degree in screenwriting (widely considered to be a bad move) from Point Park University.