The Polio Epidemic of the Early 20th Century

This is a guest post from Licensed Nurse Practioner and medical history nerd, Sherry Michaels Perry.


In the early 20th century summer was a scary time. Families would isolate themselves in their homes, not allowing their children to play with other children. There would be no public functions and no swimming in an open pool. This sounds extreme and maybe even a bit ridiculous to us now. But at that time summer was a time of great fear, fear of a polio outbreak. Starting around 1910 polio became a frequent summer epidemic, it had been around for years before that, but this was when the bad outbreaks began. Treatment was limited at that time, and polio left many people, mostly children crippled with deformed limbs.

Some treatments used in the early 20th century included:

Oxygen is given through the lower extremities by positive electricity ( can’t imagine how this was done)

applications of poultices made of roman chamomile, slippery elm, and mustard.

Caffeine enemas.

None of these treatments sound very promising.

In 1936 a vast polio epidemic hit the United States leaving 500,000 people crippled. Two years later FDR was stricken with polio, leaving him crippled.


Polio Sufferer, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives

In 1928 a man named Drinker invented a contraption he called the iron lung. The Iron Lung was needed because polio very frequently paralyzed the lungs. It was a long cylinder that the patient would lie in with only his head sticking out. his original iron lung was powered by an electric motor attached to 2 vacuum cleaners. The pressure in the iron lung would drop, causing the chest cavity to expand with air, the pressure would then rise, and the air would be expelled from the patient’s lungs. This treatment was costly and hard to come by since there were so few iron lungs available. And imagine the only thing keeping you alive was a contraption hooked up to two vacuum cleaners. And you were in a polio hospital away from all your family and friends.

As the years went by the iron lungs did improve a bit, but still, the patients were trapped inside 24/7, with nothing to do but lay there.

Day in, day out..iron lung

iron lung 2iron lung

The Iron Lung, Courtesy of the National Archives

In 1955 Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, and eventually, the iron lungs became a thing of the past. Children could enjoy the summers again, and parents could breathe a bit easier. The vaccine stopped the disease, but remember, vaccines are only useful if you use them.

Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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