The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Big Polio Epidemic

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

I do not remember many things about the summer of 1950 except for the polio epidemic scare. I was only five years old at the time, and couldn't understand the total panic most of the adults of my world were in.

My family loved water sports and usually went swimming quite often. Suddenly I began hearing about public pools and lakes being closed and we didn't go anywhere there would be large crowds of people. The epidemic was running rampant and because of its severity and the lack of a cure, it was a very frightening thing.

I was sent to my grandparents for what seemed to be the most of the summer, because, I later figured out, they lived in the country and had few visitors and contact with the outside world. I suppose my parents considered it a safer place for me to be.

There were hushed whispers of a distant cousin who had contracted the disease and was in what was called an "iron lung." I tried to imagine what it would be like inside an iron lung, but had no comprehension of what it meant to have to spend the rest of one's life in one. I had seen pictures of them in magazines.

The summer passed and as we all know, Dr. Jonas Salk found a serum to cure the dreaded disease. By the time I was in school, the public health department was giving inoculations to school children.

Today, polio is a disease that few five year old children have ever heard about. They take the serum by mouth now, and never even realize what they have taken. They are protected against a disease that caused our entire country to panic less than forty years ago.