Remember Polio?



Polio held a reign of terror for decades. But unless you were born before 1955, polio may seem to be just another ephemeral disease that has been nonexistent for years, but it could come back. Those born before 1955 remember having a great fear of this horrible disease which crippled thousands of once active, healthy children. My mother was first diagnosed with it- but after receiving months of treatment- she was told she did not have it.

This disease had no cure and no identified causes, which made it all the more terrifying. Many people did not have the money to care for a family member with polio. This was one of the reasons the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was organized. The March of Dimes, the fund raiser headed by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, raised thousands and thousands of dollars to help people care for their polio stricken family members and to aid in the cost of research for a vaccine that would put an end to this misery that affected the lives of so many people.

Since people were no longer in contact with open sewers and other unsanitary conditions which had exposed them to small amounts of the polio virus as infants, when paralysis is rare, the disease grew from a very mild, uncommon occurrence to a terrifying epidemic. In an attempt to control the disease, bewildered health officials reinstituted the usual rules of sanitation which they would later learn had worsened the threat of polio.

They advised against open drains and unscreened windows. Parents were instructed to keep their children well bathed, well rested, well fed, and away from crowds. Bathing suits were locked away in closets, and nobody went to the public pools. When polio struck, movie theatres were shut, camps and schools were closed, drinking fountains were abandoned, draft inductions suspended, and nonessential meetings were cancelled until the epidemic appeared to be over for the time being.


Nobody has ever discovered completely how polio spread. The best evidence suggests that the virus is excreted in the stool and passed through hand to hand or hand to mouth contact by people who do not wash their hands properly or often enough. It was during the first few years of the fifties and many years before then, that health department officials continued to quarantine households, take in-depth histories of everywhere and everyone the patient had come in contact, inspect drains and garbage cans, and in general make it seem as though it was the patient’s own fault that he had the virus. Although keeping track of this contagious disease continued to be of great concern throughout this time, the many health inspectors and visiting nurses could not help but admit that they really did not know exactly what they were looking for or where they might find it.


In conclusion, few realize how greatly polio affected people in society in the early 1950s. Everyone was affected when there was epidemic outbreak. Public places were closed, and people were cut off from contact with one another. People lived in constant fear that they would be next to catch the disease, or worse, one of their children would contract polio.

The lives of polio victims and those who cared for them were changed forever by the impairments that victims of polio suffered. The thought of being paralyzed was what made polio so terrifying. Although other diseases of the era had much higher mortality rates, none had the permanent ramifications that polio did.

Hospital treatment was still hard to come by in some areas, because not all hospitals would accept polio patients. So, many of the infected had to make do with whatever care and equipment that they could find at home. Although many people who won their battle against polio had no after-effects, there were plenty of people who were left paralyzed with little to help them deal with their new lot in life. The sparse range of braces and crutches that existed were expensive, heavy, and quite often painful to use.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was instrumental in helping to pay for the expensive treatment and equipment needed to rehabilitate polio victims. It also funded the research for the development of a cure for polio. These funds paved the way for the improved research techniques and methods of the era carried out by scientists such as Enders, Wellers, Salk, and Sabin to isolate and develop a vaccine against polio. It was not until the development and distribution of the vaccine against polio that people could have a secure sense of hope that they would not fall victim to this paralyzing disease. Once this vaccine proved to be an effective cure, polio was basically wiped out. Those of us lucky enough to live in a time when vaccination is readily available will never know the terror that permeated the lives of so many just a few decades ago.

With files from

Fear of Polio in the 1950s
1997, Beth Sokol


Easter Seals Camp Merrywood (opened 1948) Big Rideau Lake

Easter Seals Camp Merrywood is located on a beautiful peninsula stretching out into Big Rideau Lake. The camp sits on 30 acres of property between Smiths Falls and Perth in Eastern Ontario.

Built in 1948, Camp Merrywood began as a summer camp for kids with polio. Six campers attended in its first year.

The site has 12 buildings including: six camper cabins that can accommodate up to 72 campers per session, a health hut, dining room and lodge, music and theatre building, nature building, specially adapted swimming pool. Merrywood offers a full waterfront program and activities such as sailing, kayaking, canoeing,  and fishing.

Campers also get to experience a variety of camping trips. There are four-day canoe trips to Crotch Lake and one-night trips through the Rideau Canal system.



Clipped from The Ottawa Journal,  14 Jul 1955, Thu,  Page 3


Clipped from The Ottawa Journal,  14 Jul 1955, Thu,  Page 3

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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