Nothing—not even the atomic bomb—frightened people as much as polio (infantile paralysis) in the middle of the 20th century. The disease came on quickly, and it killed or it paralyzed the victims.
Polio seemed to spread from person to person, affecting mostly children. In the summer parents often kept their children away from crowds. Some places closed the public swimming pools and even the movie houses.
Living on a farm in northeast Missouri, I wasn’t often in crowds and didn’t think much about it. My parents did, but they let us go to the movies most Sunday afternoons. The show in those pre-television days included a short news report called “The March of Time.” That’s where I learned about the horrors of polio. The film showed children and adults in machines called iron lungs. Resembling a cocoon, an iron lung covered everything but the patient’s head. Its purpose was to keep a paralyzed person breathing. Not everyone who got polio needed an iron lung, but almost everyone lost the ability to walk normally. Children with twisted legs wore braces, rode in wheelchairs, or walked with crutches. Naturally the ones in the news films were smiling bravely, but it was all too easy to imagine their pain, frustration, and bewilderment.
The most famous victim of polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who served as president longer than anyone else. In 1938 he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and asked people to give dimes for research to treat and prevent the disease. Eddie Cantor, one of the country’s most famous comedians, called the campaign the March of Dimes, a play on words from “The March of Times.”
We didn’t do many fundraising campaigns in schools in those days, but every year we brought our dimes to put in slots in small cardboard sheets. Most of those dimes were the ones with President Roosevelt’s portrait on one side. Those came into being as a tribute to him after his death in 1945.
In 1955 researchers led by Jonas Salk announced the development of a vaccination against polio. Those dimes helped make the disease, the iron lung, and the fear go away.