“Do you remember Wilmington two years ago when the newspapers and the radios were blaring out polio headlines and when the public was almost hypnotized by the fear of the disease?”
Local newspaper columnist Bill Frank was just warming up. “There’s that classic story of a Wilmington couple who went vacationing in their cabin cruiser in 1947. They pulled up to a dock down in the South for refueling. They were told to move on-because someone on the dock had seen ‘Wilmington’ on the stern of the cruiser. The Wilmingtonians were told: ‘You’ve got polio where you come from. Don’t stop here.’
“Here at home, parents kept their children from the movies… canceled children’s parties… and tried to keep the youngsters in a sort of a vacuum.
“The specter of fear really gripped the town.”
Delaware’s Battle Against Polio
Poliomyelitis (“polio” for short) has posed a significant challenge to the healthcare field for thousands of years. The American medical community started earnestly combating this terrible scourge early in the 20th century. Austrian Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper confirmed a virus as the cause of polio in 1908, providing a cornerstone for vaccine development.
Delaware began requiring doctors statewide in 1915 to report polio occurrences to the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Furthermore, local health boards in incorporated towns decreed that households with polio patients display a red quarantine sign prominently on the front door for the entire duration of the illness.
Major outbreaks of “infantile paralysis,” as it was then referred to, erupted in the summer of 1916 in nearby New York and New Jersey. Delaware, in response, implemented stringent measures, barring the entry of children under 16 from these states as a quarantine strategy. This new infectious disease everyone was powerless to stop surged nationwide.
The battle against polio intensified during the 1930s and 1940s as knowledge about fighting the virus improved. One significant advancement in managing the disease occurred in the early 1930s with the invention of the iron lung.
This mechanical respirator supported patients’ breathing when they lost control of their muscles. However, the device also exacted a considerable toll on victims. For instance, in 1936, a teenage boy from Middletown afflicted with respiratory failure spent five continuous weeks clamped into an Emerson Respirator. Even so, he had to return for multiple sessions over the following weeks, despite his original extended stay.
Wilmington suffered a polio outbreak in 1944, followed by another particularly harsh one, in 1947. In mid-August the city closed all city pools as the count rose to 37. Within days the ‘Morning News’ reported 93 people were affected. Schools near Wilmington delayed their openings by several weeks. The Doris Memorial Unit at Wilmington General Hospital counted 122 cases before the outbreak finally subsided.
A team of epidemiologists descended on Wilmington in September to scrutinize the epidemic. They were part of a nationwide study funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
“In Wilmington,” reported the Morning News, “many cases occurred in an area where there was open sewage, and some children were said to have gone swimming in polluted water.
Nationwide Scrutiny and Local Resilience
“Samples of this water are being studied,” continued the newspaper. “DDT was sprayed in that part of the city to kill possible insect carriers.” But polio could strike anywhere, regardless of neighborhood or living conditions.
Wilmington newspaper columnist Bill Frank continued, in the summer of 1949, to reflect on his city’s journey from fear to resilience. He debunked the misconception that polio concentrated in open sewer areas and emphasized that the disease remained a mystery.
“It was true that parents were scared when the doctor told them that Jimmy had polio,” Frank observed, “but the blow was eased when the parents found that modern-day science, despite its handicap in fighting polio—still had a good chance of sending Jimmy back to play football or to the swimming pool.”
He pointed out at least 75% of polio cases resulted in full or near-full recovery, which provided some comfort to anxious mothers and fathers. “This year, up to this point,” Frank reported, “Delaware has had a total of 41 polio cases, of which 15 have been in Wilmington.”
He acknowledged that while the fight against polio continued, the community’s mindset had drastically changed: “They are not as frightened as they were two years ago and are more calm than the previous year.”
Frank ended his column on a hopeful note, stating, “Swimming pools were kept open this summer. The ambulances used for polio patients were used for other contagious cases. Polio victims are being admitted to general hospitals and not all necessarily to a contagious building. The fight against polio continues in the laboratories and research centers, but here at home, at least in Wilmington, we’ve just about won the fight against the fear of polio.”
Wilmington, and Delaware, and the world, would have to wait 6 more years for Dr. Jonas Salk to develop the first successful polio vaccine against the virus. This revolutionary medical breakthrough, known as the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) or simply the Salk vaccine, sparked an unprecedented wave of relief. The iron lung could finally, and forever, be retired.