Feds Respond to Polio Panic
During the heat of summer in 1916, an outbreak of polio, then called infantile paralysis, started in Brooklyn, New York. The rich fled the city to escape the disease, but the poor had no choice but to stay and hope. As the daily numbers of victims grew, both rich and poor turned to government officials and scientists, begging them to “do something.” A women’s column in the Philadelphia Ledger dated July 18 provides some insight.
“A doctor at one of the downtown hospital dispensaries told me that the day after news of the infantile paralysis epidemic in New York was published in the Philadelphia papers his dispensary was crowded to the doors with what we, in more or less fortunate circumstances, are inclined to regard as ‘slum’ mothers.
“All of them wore anxious, worried faces. Some of them had brought their children along and they made a picture worthy of an artist’s brush, as, herded together, they waited their turn to consult the big doctor.
“According to my doctor friend, the questions off every lip that morning after the paralysis plague had become a matter of common knowledge were:
“What can we do, doctor, to look out for it?
“How are the little ones to be protected?
“Must we go to the drug store and buy things?”
At first, local government tried to limit the outbreak to a single part of New York City, but even these actions met with resistance. The Trenton Times of July 23 reported, “Mrs. Anna Henry, a nurse employed at a baby clinic in Flatbush, reported to the police today that she had received a Black Hand letter, threatening death if she continued to report unsanitary conditions and suspected cases of infantile paralysis from the Italian section. The letter, which the police say was written in blood, follows:
“‘Dear Nurse Henry:
“‘If you report any more of our babies to the Board of Health we will kill you and nobody will know what happened to you. Keep off our street and don’t report our homes and we will do you no harm.’
“There were pictures of a skull and crossbones, followed by a line reading: ‘We will kill you like a dog.’”
The next day the Asbury Park Press told of actions being taken to protect New Jersey.
“Rigid quarantine against arrivals from New York are being enforced by many north New Jersey cities and towns as the result of the infantile paralysis epidemic.
“From Passaic, Rutherford and Garfield fully 200 automobile parties many of which sought merely to pass through the towns in question, were halted and compelled to turn back. These towns were quarantined not only against New York, but against each other, so that many persons who sought to pass from one to the other were held up.
“At the railroad stations of each place officers were stationed, who sent 200 or more children back to New York against protests of accompanying parents.”
On the 24th, the federal government stepped in.
“Infantile paralysis showed another sharp increase today. The record showed 28 deaths and 150 new cases, as compared with 31 deaths and 89 cases yesterday.
“The plague has now stricken a total of 3,098 persons in the present epidemic. Of these cases 674 have proved fatal.
“Regulations constituting a practical federal quarantine of the city went in to effect today.”
To make matters worse, parents were being given conflicting information. On the 25th, Dr. Alton Fell of the Trenton health department gave an interview to the city’s newspaper stating there was no need for any quarantines.
“We have always felt that flies were an abominable nuisance and now that we know they carry disease on their dirty feet, which they wish on human beings, we kill them with great gusto. Rosenau says the stable fly is the cause of infantile paralysis. Remember the stable fly, not the house fly.
“Fear never helped anyone. It always tends to lower one’s vitality and resisting powers, so it pays to keep cool and be philosophical. What can’t be cured must be endured. Under conditions as they are at present our advice is to be calm. Don’t worry needlessly. Don’t get excited if one of the children complains of being ill, has a sick stomach and the intestines are in a state of disorder.
“Infantile paralysis will cease as suddenly as it started, but no one knows just when that will be. In the meantime, don’t worry, don’t get excited, don’t let your fears run away with you, don’t fret, fuss and fume, just pray that the scientists may speedily discover two things, namely how this disease is spread and some means of positively curing it.”
Two days later papers across the country carried a warning from Washington.
“Mothers of America were warned today by the Agriculture Department against the meanest men yet born – manufacturers of worthless, and sometimes dangerous, infantile paralysis ‘cures,’ who have sprung up as a result of the present New York City epidemic among children.
“Inspectors have already discovered a few shipments of such mixtures, and instructions have been issued to watch for the interstate shipments of any medicine which claims property of curing or alleviating this disease.
“No medical cure is yet known for infantile paralysis, the department said, and any preparation making such claims should be looked upon with ‘extreme care.’ The department announced that makers of fraudulent remedies would be vigorously prosecuted.”
As July ended, new cases were being reported across New Jersey and into Philadelphia, whose newspaper the Ledger told of problems with the quarantine.
“Ralph S. Strassburger fled from New York to his estate near Norristown yesterday, using his father-in-law’s yacht to make the trip. Mrs. Strassburger is the daughter of Frederick G. Bourne, of New York.
“The Strassburgers were on the Bourne estate in Long Island. A gardener’s child on the estate was stricken. Although Mr. Strassburger’s infant son did not come within half a mile of the sick child, his father took no chances, and he got in touch with the yacht by wireless, getting here last night.”
The paper attempted to explain how the quarantine worked.
“Getting children out of New York and Brooklyn is no easy matter; because the authorities are bound they will not allow the infantile paralysis spread if there is any possible way of preventing it.
“Mrs. Martha Shaner and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Tillie Shaner, Sixty-first and Reedland streets, Philadelphia, had a hard time leaving Brooklyn and getting home. Three special applications and permits had to be granted them before they were allowed to leave New York.
“In the first place an application was sent to the Department of Health, City of New York, saying:
“‘I hereby apply for a certificate that there has been no case of poliomyelitis at my residence 312 East Eighth street, Borough of Brooklyn.’ This is signed by Mrs. Shaner. Attached to that application is a certificate that the house has never had a case in it. It is signed by a New York medical inspector. This is accompanied by a health certificate from Dr. J.B. Given, 463 Ninth street, who says: ‘This is to certify that I have examined Tillie Shaner, 6 years old, of Philadelphia, and believe her in normal health.’”
Pennsylvania now turned its eyes to New Jersey as the enemy, and on Aug. 4, a telegram was sent to Trenton.
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania this day placed quarantine against all children under 16 years of age coming from outside this commonwealth who have had or have been in contact with infantile paralysis or who have been living in premises in which there is or has been a case of infantile paralysis during the present epidemic. Other children less than 16 years of age from any stricken district will be held under observation.”
On Aug. 7, the Associated Press reported the epidemic had affected even the most powerful.
“To avoid the restrictions imposed by the infantile paralysis epidemic the children of Secretary of the Treasury McAdoo, including the President’s granddaughter, have been moved from Spring Lake, where the Secretary and Mrs. McAdoo are spending the summer to Shadow Lawn, Long Branch, the summer White House.
“This was not done because of any danger to the children, it was stated at the Treasury Department, but because of directions given by the physician against their playing with others.
“Secretary McAdoo today directed that Past Assistant Surgeon W.H. Frost, until recently stationed at Cincinnati, be put in charge of the fight against infantile paralysis in New Jersey.”
The next day the Ledger was reporting confidently, “More than 1000 inspectors are at work in an effort to keep from the State children coming from New York, New Jersey, Delaware or Maryland.
“So effective has this quarantine become that more than 200 Camden schoolboys who work during the summer months in this city were turned back to New Jersey this morning after they had come to the Philadelphia side of the river, the guards having discovered that these had no health certificates showing them free of infantile paralysis germs.
“The vigilance of the inspectors has been increased because of the 5 deaths and 15 new cases reported here in the last 24 hours.”
The Philadelphia paper described the scene on the banks of the Delaware River.
“Hundreds of children tearfully pleaded with inspectors stationed at the ferry houses on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River at Market, Chestnut, Vine and South streets.
“Many of the youngsters apparently were not aware that a quarantine was in force. They did not know what to make of the eagle-eyed inspectors who, stationed on each side of the ferry houses, had spotted them on board inbound boats almost before the gangplank had been thrown down.
“As each boat entered the slip a row of six or more inspectors advanced toward the vanguard of passengers who rushed to disembark. Keenly they watched the children. Those who looked as though they might be more than sixteen years old were permitted to pass without question. Others were stopped and detained.
“‘How old are you?’ asked an inspector of the suspect. Frequently the child gazed at the man with frightened eyes. She did not know what he meant. Perhaps he was a kidnapper. The youngster struggled to get free, but the inspector held on.
“Finally the situation was explained and if the youthful ferryboat passenger was below the necessary age he or she was sent back to the Jersey side and forbidden to cross into Pennsylvania until the necessary physician’s certificate of good health was obtained.”
Today sitting in my air-conditioned office in a world of vaccines, I keep wondering how the America of 2016 would react to similar circumstances. I only hope I never find out.
Next Week: Quacks and cures.