Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Coronavirus has shades of Wisconsin polio quarantines


Biggest scare was in 1950s

Iron lung patients in New York in the 1950s. (March of Dimes)


For many Americans, the coronavirus COVID-19 has echoes of other massive challenges.

A polio epidemic swept across the land almost three-quarters of a century ago.

It was big and scary and in fact was often called “the polio scare.”

This is what registered on my childhood brain:

Kids get sick. Many end up unable to walk. Some can’t breathe. Some are helped by a machine called an “iron lung.” Some children die.

These are kids like my friends and classmates – and me.

In my kid brain, polio was EVERYWHERE, and I’d better listen up.

Somehow over time, the 1950s got the image of being quaint and genteel.

Duh, we kids had the polio scare, the Red scare, images of atom bombs landing on our classroom and the start of the Cold War.

A first pimple was a piece of cake.

In school, we had drills – with all-city air raid sirens – for which we would huddle under our desks for when the Russians came and bombed Milwaukee.

Think of how many lives those wooden desks would have saved against an H-bomb.

Better and more thoughtful, though, we were sent to the basement of Greenfield Elementary School. We would file deep into the bowels of the building where the janitor kept not only brooms and mops but all the nifty tools to keep the school machinery running.

The janitor was very nice to us. He seemed glad to see us. He liked the company.

The H-bomb seemed mythical. Polio was different – right here and now to us kiddies.

We had seen the black-and-white photos in the newspapers of kids on crutches or in vast rooms filled with filled iron lungs or of just one kid in an iron lung looking unhappy and trapped.

Any kid looking at the picture of that unhappy kid automatically flashed on the thought, “This could be ME!”

“Ma!” your (my) brain screamed.

It was “the polio scare,” indeed.

Not until recently did I become aware that the scare was pretty much the start of the end. The scare had been on a build-up roll.

Last week, a sister-in-law inquired about stories my mother told her about earlier quarantines in Milwaukee.

The gist of the stories was my mother was trapped in the house for long periods with four boys, her sons.

For some mothers, these would be horror stories. Knowing my brothers, that was probably the case. Me? I was too young. And angelic in the first place.

While I do not recall the situations due to infancy and stupidity, they were true because I looked them up in newspaper clippings.

For a month in August-September 1944, children younger than age 12 were prevented from leaving their home premises in Milwaukee. Other communities also had restrictions. At least 11 children died in Milwaukee County during that period.

There were quarantines in other years. An article in September 1948 reported there were 216 polio cases that year in Milwaukee County and 32 deaths.

America soon tumbled into the 1950s and the Korean War and more with no cure for polio.

Being a kid, I was oblivious to the real world unless it came visiting, and that was mostly in the classroom.

I do remember one fall when the start of school was delayed during that dangerous period of early September. That was all right with me, mostly because there was no air conditioning in schools and everybody sweltered on the stickiest days.

On I went, do-dee-do-dee-do. All of a sudden, one day our teacher said that tomorrow everybody would be going to the nurse’s office to get a shot in the arm that would save us from polio.

Soon, we would be hearing a name, Dr. Jonas Salk.

He is a hero in our lives.

The guy found a cure.

In a few years, another teacher would say that tomorrow everybody would be given a sugar cube with medicine on it for us to swallow that would really make sure we wouldn’t get polio.

And we heard another name, Dr. Albert Sabin.

Four letters to the editor in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on one day in 1955 seem awfully familiar:

+ “Why Disagreements?” The letter writer, “A Parent,” wonders about differences of recommendations among governmental entities.

+ “An Answer To Be Cautious.” Identified only as B. Cautious, the writer doesn’t want his/her children sent to school “in this mess.”

+ “What To Do About Polio.” B. Waiting is all for quarantines in all municipalities, primarily Green Bay, because “outsiders carried the germ into this city.”

+ “Has Confidence in Authorities.” Another Mother says, “I believe our officials know more about what to do than I do…”

Nervousness and intensity fill those letters that are of the same general tone of today.

Now, this article is not a been there, done that tale. While “the polio scare” was truly scary, its scale is nothing like today’s pandemic.

And so much today is unknown.

Will there be another Dr. Salk, another Dr. Sabin?

While we kids still were still pawns of the Red scare, large bombs heading toward our heads and the Cold War, those research saviors at least gave us the chance to look forward to our first pimple.

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