Monday, May 30, 2016

The Reconstruction Home, FDR, and the Iron Lung Club: A History of Polio in Chemung County

by Erin Doane, curator

From April 17 to May 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) undertook the largest synchronized event in the history of vaccines. The organization coordinated 155 countries and areas around the world in the simultaneous switch from the old oral polio vaccine to a new vaccine in the hope of fully eradicating polio worldwide by 2019.

The United States stopped using the oral polio vaccine entirely in 1999, so we were not part of this world health event. There has not been a reported case of polio in Chemung County since 1961. People born here in the last 50 years have never experienced the fear of contagion or the effects of the crippling disease that swept through the population on a fairly regular basis before the development of a vaccine in the 1950s. Many people today may not even know what polio is or why it is so important to finally eradicate it forever.

Governor Roosevelt meeting a child stricken

by polio on his visit to Elmira in 1929.
Poliomyelitis, or polio, is also known as infantile paralysis. According to the WHO website, polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that is transmitted person-to-person through the fecal-oral routine. Children under 5 years old are at the greatest risk of infection. Early symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck, and pain in the limbs. The infection can spread to the nervous system causing paralysis, usually in the legs. 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5 to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. There is no cure for polio.

Chemung County suffered a polio epidemic in 1921 that left many disabled children without rehabilitative or long-term care. In January 1923, the Elmira Rotary Club took steps to help those children. The club purchased the former home of Governor Lucius Robinson at 563 Maple Avenue in Elmira and created the Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children. The home opened its doors just a month later. Children who came to live in the home received physical therapy and had around-the-clock care. There was also a classroom in the home, equipped and staffed by the Elmira school system.

The Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children on Maple Avenue in Elmira, c. 1920s
Shortly after the Rotary Club began its charitable undertaking, the members’ wives got together and formed the Rotary Anns, an auxiliary group dedicated to the Reconstruction Home. They raised money for furnishings and equipment for the home, sewed linens, and provided special treats for the children. The Anns’ goal was to make the place feel more like home to the children, many of whom lived there for months at a time. Whenever possible, they took the children on outings to the movies or the circus. There was also a picnic at the Roy Farm in Wellsburg each summer. All the children, whether they were ambulatory, in wheelchairs, or on frames, were loaded into cars and trucks and taken out to enjoy a day in the countryside.

Christmas at the Reconstruction Home, 1924
In August 1929, the Reconstruction Home received a famous visitor – then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt made the brief stop while in the area to inspect the State Reformatory in Elmira. In 1921, he himself had been stricken with polio and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The Elmira Star-Gazette reported that the children were a bit shy at first about meeting the governor but “when Roosevelt smiled they all hobbled up to meet him.” One youngster in a wheelchair declared, “I wanna meet the guvnor. Take me to him.”

Governor Roosevelt visiting the Reconstruction Home in Elmira, August 1929

Eddie Wright of Hornell, resident of the Reconstruction
Home, meeting Governor Roosevelt,
Elmira Star-Gazette, August 14, 1929
By the late 1930s, demand for the rehabilitation services and care at the Reconstruction Home had waned. At the end of 1936, there were only five children left in residence. The home closed its doors for good in February 1937. It had operated in Elmira for 15 years during which time nearly 350 children had received care.

Children outside of the Reconstruction Home, c. 1920s
In 1944, Chemung County suffered its worst polio epidemic. The first case was reported on June 20. By the time the outbreak ended in December of that year, 293 patients from the region had been treated at St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospitals. Six people died in the epidemic and many more were permanently paralyzed by the disease. Five out of the six deaths were children. One of the reasons that this outbreak was particularly bad was because it took place while World War II was raging. Of Chemung County’s 60 physicians, nearly half were away in military service.

Another polio outbreak hit the county in May 1953. While not as severe as the 1944 epidemic, there were still 80 cases reported and four deaths. St. Joseph’s Hospital started what became known as the “Iron Lung Club.” The hospital had been presented with an iron lung in 1946 by the National Foundation. An iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that was essential in treating people with polio when they could not breathe on their own. Patients would stay in the iron lung for weeks, months, and even years at a time.

Diane Bacon, last respirator polio patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital

in Elmira, is transported in an iron lung for further treatment in
Buffalo, September 22, 1953, Elmira Star-Gazette
In 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk first tested his polio vaccine. Five years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed a new oral vaccine. Sabin’s vaccine was licensed in 1962 and became used world-wide to prevent the disease. Starting in 1962, the Chemung County Medical Society sponsored mass clinics for the administration of the Sabin vaccine. That year, some 92,000 area residents were inoculated. The final clinics took place on “Sabin Oral Sunday,” November 15, 1964.

In 1988, there was an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries worldwide. In 2015, those numbers were down to just 74 reported cases in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is a decrease of over 99 percent. The WHO’s dream to completely eradicate polio may well have a chance of becoming a reality.

Children and staff at the Reconstruction Home, c. 1930s