Reaching its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, poliomyelitis (polio), also known as infantile paralysis, infected and crippled hundreds of children across North Carolina. The disease terrorized the general public, and, in response, North Carolinians successfully mobilized their money and time to assist polio victims statewide. North Carolina’s mandate on polio vaccines, coupled with its citizens’ philanthropic efforts, played a significant role in eradicating the disease from the state’s population.
Polio hit North Carolina cities and suburbs particularly hard during the 1940s. Brought about by aseptic meningitis, polio caused temporary or permanent paralysis, usually of the legs, when the virus attacked and inflamed the central nervous system. Death by polio was rare but possible. Polio epidemics were seasonal: the numbers spiked during the summer and lessened during the winter. In 1944, 861 polio cases were reported in North Carolina. The worst year for polio in the state was 1948, a year in which 2,516 cases and 143 deaths were reported.
Euphemized “Polio City” by outside newspapers, Hickory was the hardest hit municipality in North Carolina. The city had a facility that provided treatment for the state’s polio patients, who traveled to Hickory from all over North Carolina. Supported by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which established and operated the “March of Dimes” fundraiser, Hickory and its medical facilities benefited from excellent doctors and nurses, as well as many charitable donations and volunteers.
Despite the disease’s effect on the state, preventive care was wanting. Historian David Oshinsky writes that North Carolina journalists, for instance, were unable to offer sound medical advice. The following typifies medical advice of the time: “Avoid overtiring and extreme fatigue . . . pay careful attention to personal cleanliness . . . use the purest milk and water . . . don’t visit in epidemic areas.” These recommendations were not so much specific preventive methods as general health guidelines. Nonetheless, balanced diets, personal and household cleanliness, and avoidance of contaminated areas lowered the incidence of polio in the early 1950s.
In 1955, more substantial relief came in the form of a poliomyelitis vaccine invented by Jonas Salk. His vaccine introduced a dead version of the virus into the body so that the immune system could build antibodies to fight against future exposure. In 1959, North Carolina became the first state to require that all children be inoculated with Salk’s vaccine. This measure drastically reduced rates of paralysis and death due to polio in North Carolina. In 1962, Albert Sabin introduced an orally administered polio vaccine, which furthered efforts to eradicate the disease. Few, if any, cases have been reported in North Carolina since.
Although polio was particularly devastating for a generation, as pictures of FDR remind us, the disease evoked a deep philanthropic consciousness among everyday North Carolinians and Americans. Due to the volunteerism, financial contributions, and personal efforts of North Carolinians, this debilitating virus was eradicated from the state and the country. Philanthropic organizations, particularly the Rotary International Foundation, continue to fight for polio eradication in the developing world and have done so with much success.
William S. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); David Oshinsky, Polio, An American Story (New York, 2005)