The Medical World

I was sick for three days before my parents could get me into town to a doctor. By then, my legs were paralyzed, and I had trouble breathing. When I got to the hospital, I went in the iron lung right away, and they couldn't start the hot packs and muscle stretching until I came out.
Peg Kehret, 1996

Polio patients were most vulnerable in the acute stage, when the virus was actively destroying the motor neurons that controlled the muscles connected to swallowing, breathing, and limb movement. Although there was, and is, no cure for polio, endangered lives could be saved. Doctors and nurses used technology, experience, and vigilance to keep patients alive until the infection ran its course, and recovery began.


Hospital ward in Salt Lake City, Utah
Courtesy of Dr. W. H. Groves Latterday Saints Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah

Medical equipment and personnel typically needed for the treatment of polio, 1955
Courtesy of March of Dimes

  • The poliovirus can destroy up to 60 percent of the motor neurons (which control muscle movement) before any symptoms of weakness or paralysis appear.
  • Before Sister Kenny brought her controversial massage, exercise, and hot-pack treatment to the United States in 1940, the accepted treatment for polio was to immobilize patients with rigid splints and casts.
I was treated by the immobilization techniques that were used before Sister Kenny came to the United States and before her program was well accepted. As part of my treatment, I was kept on a frame made of canvas strapped across a metal bar.
Richard Owen, 1996


As with other epidemic diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis, polio brought fundamental changes to medical practice.

Tracheotomy is a simple procedure; a cut is made through the trachea below the vocal cords and a silver breathing tube three inches long is inserted into the trachea. It extends directly to the lungs. By attaching a line from an oxygen tank directly to the trachea tube, the lungs are supplied with fresh oxygen without passing through the rather long passages of the nostrils and trachea clogged with fluids.
Hugh G. Gallagher, 1998

Modified vacuum cleaner and the cuirass, or portable respirator, that it pumped

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Child using cuirass respirator, 1950s
Courtesy of Edna Hindson and Julie Silver

The chest respirator … is a plastic affair that is strapped tightly over the chest and is operated by a motor; its action creates a vacuum which causes the chest to expand so that more air is drawn into the lungs.
Jim Marugg, 1954

Sister Kenny

Elizabeth Kenny, or Sister Kenny, as nurses were called in Australia, came to the United States in 1940. Her methods of hot-pack applications, stretching, and muscle massage were unconventional and controversial, but eventually became part of standard care for polio.

Sister Kenny (right) applying hot packs, 1943

[Sister Kenny] looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m here to try to help you. But, before I can help you, I’ve got to hurt you.’
Edmund Sass, 1996
I had no idea how painful the treatment could be. I’d fight to control myself, but inevitably I’d end up screaming…. She would actually pull up the pectoral muscles, getting her thumb underneath and tormenting and pulling, stretching them to their limit, and then beyond. I knew it was for my own good, but I dreaded each visit…. And oddly enough, as much as it hurt during the treatment, afterward I seemed better.
Larry Alexander, 1954


Spinal fusion surgery performed at Rancho Los Amigos, 1955
Courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center

Boy in cast and crutches after surgery to fuse the bones in his foot and lengthen his Achilles tendon, 1948
Courtesy of Jack Warner

The morning of my operation, I felt brave going in. While I was under anesthesia, the surgeons took out sections of bone from my arms and legs and put the pieces on my lower spine, where it curved. The curvature of my spine, called scoliosis, makes it hard for me to breathe and impossible to sit up straight. The surgeons also put an iron rod down my spine to straighten it, in hopes that I could sit up enough to use a wheelchair.

When I came out of surgery, seeing stars on the acoustic ceiling tiles, I wondered if I was dead. My right leg was in a cast, and I was in terrible pain; it felt as if the bones had been beaten to powder. Everything hurt, especially when I was lifted. Back in the little kids’ room, I felt miserable, and time passed very slowly.

Mark O’Brien, 2003

Surgical staples, used to stop limb growth (epiphysiodesis) when one leg develops faster than the other
Courtesy of Tobin Siebers

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