44 Grim Photos That Show The Brutal Reality Of Mid-Century America’s Polio Epidemics

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 Hospital Room Full Of Sick Children
Room Full Of Iron Lungs
A Young Boy With Polio
The Iron Lung
44 Grim Photos That Show The Brutal Reality Of Mid-Century America’s Polio Epidemics
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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.

FDR Talking To Disabled Children

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.

Woman In Iron Lung

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.

Albert Sabin

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.

After this look at America's polio epidemic, read up on the mysterious dancing plague of 1518. Then, see the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic.

Austin Harvey
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 from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.