Remembering Polio

Claudine E. Burnett

By Claudine E. Burnett

As we struggle with coronavirus (COVID-19) some may remember another epidemic disease – infantile paralysis, better known as polio. It spread through the feces of someone who was infected. In areas of poor sanitation it could get into water or, by touch, into food. It was highly contagious. It could attack a person of any age, but children were most susceptible.

In the hot days of summer before air conditioning the young often headed to public swimming pools, lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean to cool down, but these bodies of water could also be a source of the disease.

Our parents and grandparents were terrified that infantile paralysis might strike one of their own; for my own family it did when a cousin was diagnosed with polio, unable to breathe after the virus paralyzed muscles in the chest. He was placed in an iron lung, with everyone praying for young Billy B.

Poliomyelitis has been with mankind since the dawn of history, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that major polio epidemics occurred. The disease first struck Southern California in 1912. In one week, 21 Long Beach, which was free of the disease, suffered $100,000 ($2.6 million today) in lost revenues because of rumors of outbreaks in the city.

On the morning of August 13, city health officials, trying to keep the disease out of Long Beach, passed an ordinance prohibiting youngsters under 15 years of age from congregating together in one area. This was disastrous for business, coming in the midst of the tourist season, but it undoubtedly helped curtail the spread of the disease. Theater owners were particularly hard hit and suffered large economic losses.

Pike merry-go-round entrepreneur Charles Looff was so upset he decided to disobey the new law and was arrested. Because of the success of the quarantine, Long Beach did not suffer a single case of infantile paralysis, something city health officials were proud of.

Businessmen, however, viewed the quarantine as extreme, considering there was not a single case of the disease reported in Long Beach. Because of public pressure, the ordinance was repealed on Sept. 5 and Looff’s case dropped. (Daily Telegram 9/5/1912)

One of the worst outbreaks occurred as the world was trying to recover from World War II. Fathers recently returned from battle, who had fought for a better world for their families, were now witnessing their children suffer from a disease that had no cure.

Would their youngsters, if they survived, still be able to enjoy life without permanent physical disabilities? Such thoughts raced through Long Beach parents’ minds as they witnessed an epidemic in the making. Polio cases in the city had jumped from a mere 28 in 1947 to 275 in 1948. (Press Telegram 1/1/1949)

The epidemic was not just happening in Long Beach but nationwide as more and more children experienced headaches, nausea, upset stomachs, sore muscles and unexplained fevers, all symptoms of infantile paralysis.

In 1949, the number nationwide for polio outbreaks set record numbers, soaring to 41,173 with 2,720 deaths. In Muncie, Indiana, the infection was so bad the city was forced to ban public gatherings, including funeral services.

The outbreak was not as severe in Long Beach, the number dropping to 111 cases from the city’s record of 275 the previous year. Perhaps this was due to city health officials asking residents to avoid crowds and close contact with other people. Also to be avoided was swimming in polluted water, over exertion and sudden chilling. Residents were also asked to observe strict personal cleanliness, keep food safe from flies and make sure lids on garbage cans were tightly covered.

The polio virus operated by attacking nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord, often causing paralysis. The virus got into the body through the nose and mouth and into the intestines. The infection then traveled along nerve fibers or through the blood to the central nervous system. There the virus entered a nerve cell, multiplying so rapidly it killed the cell. Paralysis resulted when the majority of the nerve cells were destroyed. Surprisingly, some people who became infected by the virus did not always get the disease.

 Doctors believed fatigue made the disease more severe. Complete bed rest and simple treatments such as a hot, moist bandage was recommended to relieve pain. When the fever abated it was important to start gently moving the limbs. If this didn’t happen deformities and painful tightening of the muscles could occur. Splints, braces and crutches were needed by some patients, though exercises helped strengthen and retain the muscles.

Often breathing muscles became paralyzed and doctors put the patient on a respirator called an iron lung to help with oxygen intake. With the help of a respirator two-thirds of patients would eventually recover their natural breathing. Sometimes as little as two weeks in an iron lung was needed for treatment, in other cases it lasted a lifetime.

Can you imagine placing a young child in an iron lung, trying to keep the frightened child calm? There wasn’t much for youngsters to do but keep still. There was a mirror in front so they could see what was going on behind. There was a frame over the top where they could put a book or a newspaper, but they had to have someone to turn the pages.

There was the radio they could listen to, but no television. That was still being developed. Patients could only be let out for about 15 minutes several times a day, gradually increasing as the lungs began to work again on their own.

 Hospitals such as the Adelaide Tichenor Orthopedic Clinic in Long Beach helped children, who were most susceptible to the disease, regain the use of their limbs. The Tichenor Clinic was supported by endowments, fees and donations and was available for children up to the age of 18 with orthopedic complaints whose parents could not afford the needed care. In 1948 the clinic treated 511 children, half of whom were victims of polio. (Press Telegram 1/2/1949).

 Many “boomers” may remember the March of Dimes drives to raise money for polio research and treatment. The dimes collected helped aid victims and search for a cure for this much feared disease. It was estimated that just one polio case a year cost $3,415 to treat with more money needed for continued therapy. (Press Telegram 1/1/1949).

Often the money collected through the March of Dimes was not enough to cover local expenditures. In 1949, for instance, the March of Dimes spent $102,750 to treat Long Beach polio victims, but just $56,831 had been raised through city donations. (Press Telegram 1/18/1950)

From 1912 onward a polio epidemic appeared each summer in at least one area of the county. Research continued, resulting in the invention of the iron lung in 1927.

In September 1949, Dr. Harvey E. Billig Jr. on the staff of Community Hospital gave a glimmer of hope to sufferers of the disease. Dr. Billig had experimented by injecting glandular secretions into muscles. These steroid injections, he claimed, caused the ligaments to relax. His research showed that when this treatment was used in the first stages of the disease it worked miracles. The down side of his research, however, showed some glands failed to recover and the use of artificial steroids had to be continued. (Press Telegram 1/15/1949)

Despite years of research it wouldn’t be until 1955 that a partial cure would be found. That year anxious parents rushed to have their children immunized with the Salk polio vaccine. Free mass polio immunization got underway in Long Beach on April 18, 1955. Eleven thousand first and second grade students lined up for the first of three injections.

Following the first shot a second shot was given two to four weeks later and a third, or booster shot given seven months to a year later. The series of shots provided three years protection from the paralyzing virus.

But all was not well. Within a few days of the injections reports appeared stating that some of the Salk vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories was unsafe. One Pocatello Idaho girl died one week after being vaccinated. The vaccine was recalled and inoculations halted; despite this precaution several Long Beach youngsters suffered polio attacks after being given the Cutter produced vaccine. All, however, recovered.

Given on a sugar cube it tasted fine.

Salk’s vaccine was only partially effective. It did not prevent the initial intestinal infection. In the 1960s the Sabin oral vaccine was released by Albert Sabin, who refused to patent his vaccine so the low price would guarantee coverage for all. The Sabin vaccine blocked the chain of transmission the Salk vaccine did not, effectively obstructing the polio virus from entering the bloodstream.

Infantile paralysis didn’t just strike the young, it infected adults as well. Perhaps the most well-known instance is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt who contracted the disease in 1921. A lesser known case is that of Long Beach’s Don Hornsby, a tremendously gifted concert pianist and composer who performed at the Jack Lasley Cafe in Belmont Shore. Here he combined his piano artistry with song parodies, magic tricks, unusual facial expressions and hilarious ad lib comic.

His talents were recognized by NBC who signed Hornsby to a five-year television contract to present a late-night show out of New York. Broadway Open House was network television’s first late night comedy variety show. It was televised live on NBC from May 29, 1950 to August 24, 1951, airing weeknights from 11 p.m. to midnight. It went on to become the Tonight Show.

Unfortunately Hornsby did not even get to perform one show – he died May 22, 1950. His name would most likely have been as well-known as Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno if death brought on by polio hadn’t overtaken the 26-year-old Long Beach comedian.

 For the younger audience reading this, which never experienced the battle against polio and fear of epidemics, rest assured. We have been through similar times before, as my recent article Coronavirus vs. 1918 Influenza pointed out.

The United States has been polio-free since 1979, though it still exists in underdeveloped parts of the world. We have also developed vaccines to help combat other diseases and will do so with the Coronavirus.

Oh yes, my cousin Billy B. survived polio after six months in an iron lung, followed by physical therapy, with no ill effects and is still enjoying life today.

Claudine Burnett is a retired Long Beach Public Library librarian who compiled the library’s Long Beach History Index (available on the library’s website). In her research, she found many forgotten, interesting stories about Long Beach and Southern California which she has published in 11 books as well as in monthly blogs. You can access information about her books and read her blogs by going to her website:


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