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The American Epidemics, Communities

Quote. Many inspectors stationed themselves at the railroad stations, ferries, and boat landings along the Delaware River to bar all children under 16 years of age who attempted to cross into Pennsylvania without certificates of health. End Quote. Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1916

Polio occurred primarily in July, August, and September and hit regardless of geographic region, economic status, or population density. Relatively few people showed any symptoms and even fewer died or experienced paralysis, but the physical effects were dramatic. Communities reacted with dread because no one understood how or why people got it, and because children were the most frequently affected.

bullet In 1916, New York City experienced the first large epidemic of polio, with over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. The 1916 toll nationwide was 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Epidemics worsened during the century: in 1952, a record 57,628 cases of polio were reported in the United States.
bullet Polio (also called infantile paralysis) was most often associated with children, but it affected teens and grown-ups as well. Between 1949 and 1954, 35 percent of those who contracted polio were adults.
bullet The first known polio outbreak in the United States was in Vermont in 1894. The last cases of wild (naturally occurring) polio in the United States were in 1979 in four states, among Amish residents who had refused vaccination.
Left image. Sign reading Contagious Disease in this house, quarantined by order of Fulton County Board of Health
Right photo. Closed pool in Emira, New York
Enlarge Image
Left: Quarantine sign from a home in Atlanta, Georgia, where an infant contracted polio, 1941 Courtesy of Jack Warner
Right: Pool in Elmira, New York, with sign indicating that it is closed due to polio, 1953 Courtesy of March of Dimes

“The fear of polio was a fear of something you had no defense against, something that hit without logic or reason. Yesterday, it was the man down the block. Today it could be you or your children.”
—Larry Alexander, 1954

Tough Choices

Individual Rights versus the Public’s Health

During a polio epidemic, individual rights often clashed with the need for public safety. Travel and commerce between affected cities were sometimes restricted. Public health officers imposed quarantines on homes where someone was diagnosed with polio. They required the affected person to be isolated in a hospital, often against the will of the parents or family. The same practices and conflicts are seen today where SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) breaks out.

“Unable to obtain a physician, he put the boy into an automobile and drove to the Smith Infirmary, but the child died on the way and the doctors at the hospital would not receive the body…. He drove around Staten Island with the boy’s body for hours looking for some one who would receive it.”
New York Times, July 26, 1916

Photo of a sign hanging on a tree

Sign barring children under sixteen from entering town, posted on a tree during the 1916 New York City epidemic Courtesy of March of Dimes

Photo of two boys sitting on the lawn

Ben Minowitz sitting on the grass with a friend in front of a house, around 1920; he contracted polio as an infant in New York City in 1916 Courtesy of Laura Kreiss

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    Reporting on the first epidemic outbreak of polio in the United States, 1894  
Smithsonian National Museum of American History main site