I am 74 years old.  In 1952, I was a 6 year-old kid living in the Montana town of Great Falls on the Missouri River, the town where I was born.  My earliest memory of the poliomyelitis (polio) epidemic that was, at the time, raging across the country at its worst in that year,…was while crawling through the tall prairie grass on a low bluff above the river with a friend in order to sneak a peak at the “hobo town” that was squeezed in between the far riverbank of the Missouri and the steel tracks of the Great Northern Railway (that my dad worked for) running alongside that mighty river route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the early 1800s.

In addition to the excitement of spying on the “inhabitants” of this large encampment of men who had taken to riding the rails of the American West in search of employment, or simply shared meals cooked over a 55 gallon barrel/stove for a few days before hopping another empty boxcar to ride to the next state or hobo village down the tracks a few hundred more miles…was the other view that intrigued us; the closed city swimming pool that was also located on that far shoreline.  It was a disconcerting view, since that large swimming pool was the best way for kids to beat the summer Montana heat, and have a lot of fun at the same time.

My friend and I had heard about polio from our parents and our teachers at school, that it was a dreaded disease that affected kids more often than adults, and that it was thought to be transmitted via water, especially water in crowded swimming pools.  We began to despise polio selfishly because it meant that we couldn’t go swimming with all of our friends in that huge pool that was usually filled with the squeals and laughter of a couple hundred kids most every day from the end of the school year in June to the beginning of school once again after Labor Day.  We didn’t think much about the devastating effects of polio on its young victims because nobody told us about the details of its impact on those who were unfortunate enough to “catch” it.

Forward ahead two or three years.  We were now living back in central Minnesota where my parents grew up not far from each other.  We managed to learn more and more about the disease that had come and gone for many years, but was particularly bad during the early and mid-50s in the United States.  It was a disease that affected the nerves that controlled the function of our muscles, sometimes even the breathing muscles, hence the use of “iron lungs” hulking precursors to today’s ventilators,…and you really didn’t want to get it.

We all soon learned a lot more about polio because of the welcome announcement of the first truly effective and safe vaccine had been developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh, and it was ready for widespread inoculation campaigns by 1955.  We all lined up dutifully at our elementary school (District #214) to get our shots, and a couple years later for the more pleasantly administered oral vaccine booster, a drop on a sugar cube, developed by Dr. Albert Sabin.  By 1961, polio had become almost entirely eradicated in the U.S. because just about everyone had become “immunized” from the virus because of these two important vaccines that had been finally developed after years of development in medical laboratories specializing in infectious diseases and immunology.

Going forward, for me, polio became essentially just a bit of medical history until 1972 when, after two years in the U.S. Army, I began graduate school in the Physical Therapist Program at the Duke University Medical Center and School of Medical Professions in Durham, NC.

The physical therapist profession that increasingly interested me as a career had its early beginnings right after World War I.  Countless soldiers were returning after the war bearing the scars, and disabilities, of armed conflict.  Amputations, spinal cord injuries, and many other problems affecting physical mobility and function were soon found to be present in many of these returning soldiers, sailors and marines…and something had to be done to minimize the impact of these injuries on the rest of their lives.  A new medical specialization in physical medicine and rehabilitation was being established as quickly as possible.

Twenty years later, World War II was soon generating many more young men with physical impairments and disabilities that needed attention to maximize their own post-war functional mobility and their productive roles in the American workforce.  in 1943, Duke University established its first training program in physical therapy.  It was among the first in the nation to do so.  By 1972, when I started in the program, it was a two-year Masters Degree program.  For the past twenty years, it has been a three-year clinical doctorate, granting the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.

The first two of six pages in “The First 75 Years”, a history of the physical therapy program at Duke University. It underscores the importance of World War I and II….and the polio epidemic in America as well insofar as the beginnings and development of physical therapists as a valuable healthcare profession.

In September of 2018, the program was set to celebrate its 75th Anniversary (1943-2018), however, Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast…and raced inland.  Many events, much like what Covid-19 is doing in 2020, were cancelled, including our celebration of the program we all love.  A year later, I went to Duke to honor the program on my own time.  I saw the new classroom, laboratories, and office building.  It is beautiful, and long overdue.

I talked to faculty members that I knew from years ago, and new ones who are leading the program with great skill.  I was given a handsome 101-page history book of the program that was published for the 2018 celebration. And on pages 38-43 is the story of the impact of the polio epidemic on the need and further development of the profession of physical therapy in general, and especially the Duke program and its response to a new population of disabled,…the survivors of polio and their wide array of specific muscle deficits and weaknesses.

The story of those vaccines tells of the challenge of developing a safe and effective vaccine.  It took them years.  There have been many advancements in the field of epidemiology, so a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 may be ready by early 2021.  Many proper clinical trials must be completed first.  Our administration wants them done in time for pre-election bragging rights.  It is sad, if not infuriating.  We all want an effective vaccine sooner rather than later, but they must be developed properly, with patient safety as paramount.

My retired medical technologist wife and I, know these vaccines can’t be rushed beyond what is medically right and scientifically sound.  In the meantime, the effective, low-tech strategies must be followed by all to keep the spread from becoming a major issue here in the Rangeley Region as well as elsewhere in the U.S.  It is frightening to see how many people locally are still ignoring the masking, distancing, and no large-gatherings recommendations.  These same people seem to be obeying highway speed limits set in the interest of their, and others’, safety…so go figure.

Once we have a vaccine, we will then have to deal with the “anti-vaxers”…a scary flock of folks who originally bought into the argument for a vaccine-cause regarding the condition of autism,…based on misguided and poor science and opinion that has been scientifically discredited years ago.  I guess we will just have to cross that bridge successfully when we come to it.  In the meantime, please stay informed and choose your information sources carefully.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

                                                                  Garrison Keillor

Respect Science, Respect Nature,

Respect Each Other.  VOTE 2020

Per usual, your thoughts and comments are encouraged.  Jot them down on a 3”x5” card and….never mind.  Just fire off a safe email to [email protected]   Thank You!





Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.