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Polio Summer

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Before a vaccine, polio created a fear for Americans that was second only to the atomic bomb. Polio could paralyze and even kill. And little could be done for patients. The mysterious illness struck especially hard in summertime, and the extent of the outbreaks varied. Children were the most susceptible.

Crutches, leg braces, wheelchairs and dreaded iron lungs were the images of polio. Iron lungs were massive breathing machines that entombed a person’s body below the neck.

The March of Dimes appealed to the American public for donations for research and patient care. One popular fundraiser for years was an annual calf auction in Mandan, begun in 1950, sponsored by Kist Livestock and broadcast on the radio. Bids were in-person or by telephone from throughout North Dakota and even from other states. Bidders bought, sold and resold a donated calf as many as 1,800 times, until the bidding ended. The auction could last hours, one year netting over $15,000.

The calf would go to a polio-stricken child. The event even involved the governor, who in years past presented the calf or drew the name of the child who would receive it.

In 1952, the U.S. faced its worst polio outbreak. Nearly 300 North Dakotans were stricken that year and 12 died. On this date that year, the Burleigh County Red Cross announced a call for nurses to volunteer in polio-hit areas of Illinois and Texas. The plea came days after a similar call in Fargo. The Red Cross would provide transportation and living costs for nurses who responded.

Also that summer of 1952, a North Dakota Air National Guard pilot flew to Minneapolis to pick up a piece of essential medical equipment for a polio patient in an iron lung in the Fargo Veterans Hospital. The National Guard also flew a young woman home to Gladstone, North Dakota, for Christmas from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she had been in an iron lung for eight months. Most of the time, she still needed a chest respirator to help her breathe.

In 1953 a new treatment made from human plasma had the state Health Department hoping it would prove effective, but the real knockout against the virus was almost in sight: a vaccine.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:
The Bismarck Tribune. 1950, January 19. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1950, January 24. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1950, January 26. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1950, January 28. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1951, January 10. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1951, January 24. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, January 7. Page 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, January 15. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, January 16. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, August 4. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, August 6. Page 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, August 26. Page 2
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, December 17. Page 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1952, December 31. Page 11
The Bismarck Tribune. 1956, January 27. Page 1
Oshinsky, D.M. (2005). Polio: An American story. Oxford University Press: New York, NY
North Dakota State Department of Health. (1954). Thirty-third biennial report July 1, 1952 – June 30, 1954: Health in North Dakota. North Dakota State Department of Health: Bismarck, ND
North Dakota State Department of Health. (1956). Thirty-fourth biennial report July 1, 1954 – June 30, 1956: Health in North Dakota. Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, ND

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