This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
The Corpus Christi board of health closed all schools, churches, theaters, parks, playgrounds and swimming pools on May 12, 1946 in response to an outbreak of polio.
The Texas State Journal of Medicine in September 1916 repeated the orthodoxy of the day: “We are reasonably certain that the mouth and nose, and not the hands” are responsible “for the transmission of the disease.” They had it backwards and this erroneous opinion shaped public policy and medical treatment for 40 years.
We now know poliomyelitis was caused by a virus that entered the body by way of unwashed hands or contaminated objects. More often than not, the polio bug came and went like a mild case of the flu without doing any serious damage.
But for the unfortunate few the virus broke through the intestinal wall, hopped a ride on the bloodstream and attacked the spinal cord. The end result was paralysis.
The most dangerous form of the disease was bulbar or respiratory polio, which affected the throat, diaphragm and other muscles essential for breathing. While the mortality rate for polio in general was less than one in ten, 60 percent of bulbar patients suffocated to death.
The earliest documented cases of polio in Texas occurred in 1913. Over the next two decades, the annual average was a modest 30 cases, far fewer than measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria and tuberculosis that snuffed out so many young lives.
That was why, until the middle of the Great Depression, polio was a “Yankee” problem in the eyes of Texans. But the epidemic of 1937, the first for the Lone Star State, changed all that as the number of cases and fatalities soared to 635 and 127, respectively.
The population of Texas was on track to double between 1910 and 1950, as the economic expansion triggered by the oil boom attracted Americans from every corner of the country. And among the many things those tens of thousands of newcomers brought with them was the polio virus.
The artificial respirator or “iron lung,” invented in 1929, became the grim symbol of the polio tragedy. The coffin-like container kept bulbar patients alive until they could breathe on their own.
Other tiny Texans were covered from head to toe in hard plaster to limit the limb and spine-twisting effects of the paralytic version of the illness. They endured weeks and even months in full body casts in polio wards without air conditioning or the comforting presence of a parent.
Healthy Texans refused to stand by and do nothing as polio took its terrible toll. Civic and fraternal organizations pitched in to pay medical bills that would have bankrupted all but the wealthiest families. Dedicated to cost-free care of “crippled, maimed and otherwise needy and dependent children,” the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children opened in Dallas in 1923.
A frightening surge in polio cases coincided with the Second World War. No part of the state was spared, as communities once convinced there was safety in isolation came face-to-face with the scourge. The statewide count in 1945 rose to nearly a thousand cases.
Hopes for a peacetime pause were soon dashed, and one knew where the crippler would strike next. In 1948 it was San Antonio, Galveston and the Valley. San Angelo was ground zero in 1949 with 430 cases resulting in paralysis for 84 and death for 28. Corpus Christi followed in 1951 and the Dallas-Fort Worth area two years later.
Instead of fun-in-the-sun summers, children spent their school break cooped up indoors with worried mothers. They were just obeying doctors’ orders and dire directives from health officials, who shut down everything from movie theaters to public pools.
The constant fear of catching polio traumatized more sensitive kids. A woman, who grew up in Odessa, vividly remembered “sleeping in a tight ball, and the first thing I did when I woke up was to check and see if my arms and legs worked.”
By the early 1950’s, the medical profession was grasping at straws. Gamma globulin serum had cut in half the death rate for measles, so why not try it on polio to buy time for the eventual cure?
Houston, then in the grip of the worst epidemic in history, was chosen as the site for the first-of-its-kind experiment with human subjects. Thirty-five thousand children of all races took part in the July 1952 field trial, while the whole country held its breath.
The results were disappointing. Costing $30 to $50 per injection, gamma globulin was good for no more than five weeks immunity for most of the guinea pigs.
But the cure was right around the corner. Starting in the spring of 1954 and continuing through the following summer, millions of at-risk children received the Salk vaccine.
The “miracle drug” did the trick. Nationwide, and in Texas too, polio cases fell off by nearly 90 percent. The long nightmare was over, and children finally got back their summers.
To learn more about the subject of this week’s column, I recommend “The Polio Years in Texas” by Heather Green Wooten.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.Email | Print