Polio Epidemic Winds Down
September 1916 was finally bringing cooler weather to the East Coast. It was hoped by many that this change would bring an end to the epidemic of infantile paralysis, now known as polio, that had started in Brooklyn and spread outward to become the worst outbreak in U.S. history. Rigid quarantines had done little to stop the advance of the disease, and medical science still hadn’t discovered where it came from or how to cure it.
The Asbury Park Press of Sept. 15 stated, “The steady dwindling of the number of infantile paralysis cases reported from resorts along the north Jersey coast has inspired health officials charged with the task of combatting the disease with confidence that the epidemic is now about over, and that only an occasional case is to be expected here and there until the disease disappears altogether with the coming cold weather.
“This is their hope. But they have not by any means permitted their confidence in this direction to result in a lessening of vigilance or a slackening of effort to prevent spread of the sickness. The precautions that were in force while the epidemic was at its height are being continued.”
The Press story summed up just how helpless people were in the face of the epidemic.
“One prominent local physician said this morning that none of the treatments offered could be relied upon to effect complete cure. He considered the disease self limited; that is, that it would run its course, like typhoid fever, despite anything the doctors might do. It appears in so many varied forms, in some phases without any paralysis at all, that he believes there have been a number of cases in which it was not recognized at all.”
The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer, in an editorial, declared the epidemic was a tempest in a teapot.
“The disease is not new. It is usually in evidence, but this year it has broken bounds … had the public not been frightened out of its wits; had the authorities gone about their duties without hysteria, would there have been any such death roll as there has been? We very much doubt it.
“We cannot recall when there has been such a studied effort to produce fear. It began with the medical officials of New York. The modern method of preventing disease seems to frighten everyone to death in an effort to escape it. In any event, New York medical men did their very best to give every parent a miserably wretched summer, and those of other cities have been quick to follow their example. Every mother has been made nervous.”
As the numbers of new cases dropped, the Asbury Park Press reported there was talk of reducing some of the restrictions.
“The question of lifting the infantile paralysis quarantine was discussed at a meeting of health officials here yesterday, but was laid over for a week pending further reports as to the spread of the epidemic.
“While the northern part of the state has shown an abatement of the malady the southern section is still severely affected and the health department is not sure that the law would permit the lifting (of) the quarantine in one half of the state and its retention in another portion. However, the matter will be taken up again next week. New cases to the number of 52 were reported yesterday, making a total of 3,373 in New Jersey, exclusive of today.”
Fortunately, there were signs that things were beginning to improve. The Trenton Times carried, “NEW YORK. Sept. 23. – Final clean-up is being made today in 497 school buildings, city authorities having decided to begin the school year Monday despite the protests of those who fear a revival of the infantile paralysis epidemic. Rooms are being scrubbed and aired, and on Monday morning Board of Health nurses will be on duty at every building.”
And in the Press, “Harrisburg, Pa., Sept. 29. – Pennsylvania’s infantile paralysis quarantine expired automatically at midnight. Immediately all inspectors and guards were withdrawn from railroad stations and travel for children under sixteen years of age and adults accompanying them was unrestricted.”
The Philadelphia Ledger continued with the good news as September ended: “Moving-picture theaters, which have been closed to children under sixteen years because of the infantile paralysis epidemic, were opened to them today.
“Coincident with this, the quarantine placed on Sunday schools several weeks ago will be lifted and on Monday the public schools will begin their fall term.
“Health authorities, both city and State, do not believe the infantile paralysis epidemic has entirely abated, but they are convinced the cool weather will stamp out the disease.”
Oct. 4, 1916, was the day on which many celebrated and gave thanks. The New York Telegram announced, “The epidemic of infantile paralysis is officially at an end so far as the Federal authorities and the local Board of Health are concerned. … All the Federal physicians engaged in the interstate inspection and quarantine work to-day received official notice to discontinue their inspections. This will allow children to be carried into and out of the State without health certificates.
“At the offices of the Department of Health it was stated that a number of the department’s clerks who have been engaged in infantile paralysis work will now be released and return to their regular work.”
At the Jersey Shore, the Press carried a simple notice.
“NEW JERSEY QUARANTINE OFF. The State department of health has lifted the quarantine which has been in force since the outbreak of the infantile paralysis epidemic. Children may now enter or leave New Jersey at will.”
Like the aftermath of a great natural disaster, or war, the survivors had to deal with the results. Thousands of people were in need of help recovering from the disease. The New Jersey Department of Health issued a bulletin on Oct. 13 saying, “Municipalities and committees that are planning the after care of infantile paralysis patients will do well to bear in mind a few fundamental points. In the first place, the after care of these cases is a matter that should be under the supervision of an expert orthopedic surgeon and should not be entrusted to a masseuse. The use of the term orthopedic surgeon does not mean that surgery will be resorted to in all cases. Usually if proper care has been given from the beginning of the attack surgery in the sense of a cutting operation will not be needed in the after care of infantile paralysis. In selecting an orthopedic surgeon to supervise the after care of these patients it is always best and wisest to select one in good standing with the medical profession and whose skill and ability are recognized by his fellow practitioners.”
Just how bad the epidemic had been was made public on Oct. 30 when the Press ran, “According to information obtained at the office of the state department of health 3,466 deaths occurred in New Jersey during the month of September, a decrease of 731 from the previous month. Of these deaths 3,352 were of residents of the state and 113 of nonresidents. … There were 711 deaths among children under 1 year, 406 deaths of children over 1 year and under 5 years of age, and 878 deaths of persons aged 6 and over.”
By December, most people were trying to forget the summer of 1916 when the Pittsburgh Press ran, “Charitable Institutions and Individuals Gladden Hearts of Poor and Little Ones Made Cripples By Infantile Paralysis Epidemic Last Summer. Police stations throughout the greater city were latterly transformed into great storehouses for gifts of all descriptions intended for the needy. Trees had been provided in some of the station houses, while others were decorated with Christmas greens and flags. The police themselves acted as Santa Clauses in distributing the presents.
“Of the approximately 25,000 children whose hearts were gladdened by the police, many were cripples from the epidemic of infantile paralysis last summer. In front of several of the station houses the crowds of small girls and boys were so large that traffic in the neighborhoods virtually was suspended.”
As the year 1916 ended, Dr. Simon Flexner – whom some modern scientists compare to Dr. Frankenstein, claiming he had released the more virulent strain of infantile paralysis on the public as he experimented with it on monkeys in the spring – made an ominous prediction.
“I am more or less fearful that infantile paralysis next summer may be more widespread in the United States, but there may be, perhaps, not so much of it in the eastern states. I regard it as one of the most severe and menacing diseases with which we have to deal, and I believe that it is here to stay for a period.
“It has never disappeared since its introduction here in 1906, and our attention has never been directed to it simply because it never before claimed its victims in such large numbers. The indications are that the community which suffers severely one year may escape the next.”
But 1916 was finally over. New Jersey had survived shark attacks, saboteurs and a plague, yet some people still ask, “Did anything ever happen here?”
Next Week: Jersey Shore White House.