Families and Individuals

Anything you had in this room gets burned. Not my bear! I cried. You can’t burn my bear! I’m sorry, said the nurse as she dropped Teddy into the bag. You wouldn’t want someone else to get polio just because you kept your teddy bear, would you? Mother said.
Peg Kehret, 1949

The enforced separation of families during the early, acute phase of the disease contributed to the intense dread and fear that polio aroused. Children and parents were not allowed any contact for ten to fourteen days and then only limited visiting for weeks afterward. When the person returned home weeks or months later, adjustment to changed circumstances brought more stress.

Parents outside of a hospital window trying to make contact with child in isolation ward, Des Moines, Iowa, 1949
From LIFE magazine, courtesy of Des Moines Register

Parents outside of a hospital try to contact their children in isolation ward, 1949
Courtesy of Des Moines Register

  • Poliovirus produces no, or only minor, symptoms in 95 percent of those infected. In about 5 percent of cases, a mild form results in flu-like symptoms of fever, stiff neck, nausea, and fatigue, or a slight, temporary paralysis. About 1 percent of those with polio symptoms experience a severe form called paralytic polio that has lasting effects. In the worst cases of paralytic polio, 2 to 5 percent of children and 10 to 20 percent of adults die.
  • Humans are the only reservoir for the poliovirus. The virus does not naturally reproduce in any other species.



Scrapbook with get well cards kept by Ron Mace's mother during his hospitalization, 1950
Courtesy of Joy Weeber
Link to Object Record

Ron Mace in his pajamas, seated in a wheelchair with an arm sling during his convalescence, North Carolina, 1950
Courtesy of Joy Weeber

I walked into the isolation ward of the Sheltering Arms Hospital in Minneapolis and went to bed in a private room. No one was allowed in except the doctors and nurses, and they wore masks. My parents stood outside on the grass, waving bravely and blowing kisses through the windows.
Peg Kehret, 1949
Every day—was it morning or afternoon?—the male aide would direct me to look outside at the fire escape to see my father across from my window. Many years later he told me as we silently waved to each other he would recite the same old Catholic prayer: Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve …
Richard Castiello, 2005
There was so much not to talk about; for instance: no one in my family had ever talked about my being paralyzed, except regarding practical, immediate concerns such as who would put me to bed or wash me. We never discussed how being paralyzed had affected me emotionally, or how it would affect my future as a student, worker, or a human being.
Mark O’Brien, 2003
I spent my first 16 years in hospitals. Since I was in a place that was a twelve-hour drive away from my family, I rarely got visited. Every Sunday was visiting hours. Each girl had to get dressed, bed made, and quietly sit for the duration of the visiting hours. You had to make a decision to either be sad that you didn’t have any company, or be happy for those who did.
Georgia Gibson, 2004
In isolation, it ripped my body from me, without warning. There was no possible preparation, or forethought. I woke up after the searing jumble of fever as an eighteen-year-old boy in a seventy-five-year-old body.
Lorenzo Wilson Milam, 1984