With advances in medicine and sanitation, many of the illnesses that were seen in the early Twentieth Century, such as diphtheria, were being contained and even eliminated. But in the middle of the 1940s a new threat of epidemic proportions emerged that terrorized families and left hundreds of North Dakotans, mainly children, affected by its devastating wrath.
Many children, as toddlers, had been infected by polio prior to the 1940s and had developed immunity to it, resulting in only flu-like symptoms. But due to better sanitation, fewer toddlers were exposed to it to develop this immunity, and beginning in 1946 a wave of polio infections swept across the state. At the beginning of the summer, seventeen cases had been reported, but by the end of the summer, that number jumped to three hundred and ninety-seven.
Polio struck mainly the younger, school-aged children, and in its more aggressive form, it attacked the nerves of the spinal column, causing paralysis and even death. For many affected by the disease, respiratory problems and the need to wear braces would linger for years or even a lifetime.
Terrorized by the scope of the epidemic, parents isolated their children and refused to send them to school. Events such as the Fargo State Fair were canceled and the start of school was delayed. The epidemic continued for a number of years until the Salk vaccine was developed, which helped stop the spread of the dreaded disease.
But adults were also targeted by the virus. On this date in 1952, a negative pressure ventilator, better known as an iron lung, arrived in Dickinson, flown in courtesy of the North Dakota National Guard. This apparatus was tube shaped and encompassed the body from the neck down using suction to expand and contract the lungs. Mrs. Nick Wehner, a mother of two, had been diagnosed with the paralytic form of polio in September of 1951. After almost a year of therapy, Anna Wehner was able to leave the iron lung for five hours a day, but she still required a portable ventilator. A specially designed home was built to accommodate the equipment, and ramps replaced stairs to enable the use of a wheelchair. The March of Dimes helped meet the family’s needs.
For many affected by polio, it would take years of therapy and drugs to revitalize muscles and to overcome the devastating effects. Anna Wehner would survive her bout with polio and live another twenty-five years, passing away on April 29th, 1977.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
The Golden Ounce by Stephen L. McDonough, M.D. 1989 University Printing Center Grand Forks.
The Bismarck Capital December 16, 1952
The Dickinson Press April 30, 1977\