Polio Fears Outweigh Sharks
For many New Jersey citizens, the summer of 1916 was remembered as one of fear, dread and panic. Shark attacks on its beaches and a terrorist attack at Black Tom, in Jersey City, are the most mentioned, but the worst and most devastating came in the form of the silent killer polio.
Today, thanks to a vaccine, the disease is almost unheard of, but in 1916 it was known as Infantile Paralysis and thought by many to be carried by stable flies. At the time there hadn’t been a major outbreak in the Northeast in several years. In 2011, Dr. H.V. Wyatt of Leeds University, in England, proposed a theory about the outbreak that sounds as if it came from the plot of a sci-fi movie.
“Three miles from the epicenter of the outbreak, Simon Flexner and his associates at the Rockefeller Institute had been passaging spinal cord tissue containing poliovirus, from one Rhesus monkey spinal cord to another. They had been unable to infect monkeys by feeding. These experiments continue with the passage of virus which at times was reinforced with newly acquired virus from patients. … Previous accounts of the 1916 devastating epidemic have been faulty. The unique features of the epidemic and its sudden appearance have never been explained. A New York laboratory was passaging poliovirus in primate brains, a technique which increased pathogenicity. I propose that highly virulent virus escaped and caused the epidemic. Scientists, technical and animal house staff were unaware that they could be infected by poliovirus which could then infect others. All laboratory workers must be constantly reminded of the dangers which can arise from the escape of pathogens from their work.”
How did this happen?
“I suggest that the animal-house workers in 1916 were also of poor education and wages and, like the doctors, had little idea of the nature of the infected material they were using. … Mutants of the original Rockefeller virus had been selected for replication in monkey motor neurons, but were still capable of high levels of replication in other cells. An animal-house worker might have been infected during a post-mortem examination, with accidental carriage into a household in Brooklyn and probably further dissemination in the community until it reached susceptible children without immunity.”
None of this was suspected by those living in 1916, and most first heard of the problem on June 17 when an article appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle.
“Twenty-four cases of infantile paralysis have developed in Brooklyn within the past few days. … On June 6 there were two cases reported. June 8 the number had been increased by four more: June 10 seven additional cases developed and there were four reported today. … The families will be quarantined for six weeks at least and close watch will be kept on the neighborhoods infected as well as on the schools which the children attend. The new cases were revealed at a time when the Board of Health believed that the disease had been stamped out.”
The next day, the New York Tribune offered some advice.
“The prevalence of infantile paralysis in this city, and especially in Brooklyn, has been spoken of as a proper occasion, ‘for urgent action on the part of the Health Department,’ but unfortunately it is not so easy to define the course of action to be pursued. The department has already given warning to parents in these terms: If the child wakes up feverish and weak in the legs, send for the doctor and follow his advice. … Keep the children away from houses where the disease is present. Keep the children scrupulously clean. Keep flies out of the house.’”
The New York Sun on June 18 tried to reassure a nervous public.
“This is the first outbreak since 1907 where more than one isolated case has been reported. During that year the city was beset by more than 2,500 cases of a disease that was then little known to medical science. It was during that year that working knowledge of infantile paralysis was discovered.
“The Health Department holds no fear that this outbreak will develop into any recurrence of the epidemic of 1907 and the situation is said to be fully under control. The department requires a minimum quarantine of six weeks and also insists on the exclusion from school of other members of the family in which the disease exists.
“The germ of infantile paralysis has never been discovered by medical men, although its existence has been noted in many experiments.”
By the 29th, a story in the Sun had to admit, “The Department of Health, with the cooperation of institutions like the Rockefeller Institute and an army of physicians in private practice, yesterday began a systematic fight against the epidemic of infantile paralysis in sections of Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
How bad had the outbreak become?
“The number of cases recorded in Brooklyn yesterday was 206, an increase of eighteen over the previous day. In Manhattan, in a small area on the lower East Side, and on the upper East Side in the regions of Ninetieth Street, there were about thirty cases in all. Eight of these developed prior to June 1; twenty of them since and nine Tuesday and yesterday. The neighborhoods are very carefully watched and inspectors are investigating all sanitary conditions.
“Hereafter every house in which there is a case will be placarded so that all persons may avoid them and parents keep children from that vicinity.”
The story included a proclamation from the health department.
“Whenever complete isolation and proper nursing cannot be maintained in the homes, patients ill of infantile paralysis will be removed to the Health Department’s special pavilion. The department insists that a patient in order to be allowed to remain at home should have a separate room, separate toilet, a special person in attendance for nursing purposes and facilities for the proper disposal of all discharges. … If you know of any case which you believe has not been reported to the Department of Health send word at once to the Department of Health.”
As the nation anxiously watched what was happening in New York, the Philadelphia Ledger of June 30 reported confidently, “Philadelphia has never experienced an outbreak of infantile paralysis such as the one that is claiming many victims in New York and Brooklyn. Director Krusen, of the Department of Health and Charities, said today there was not the slightest probability of such trouble here.
“In New York two victims past childhood have been claimed. This development of the disease has never been noted here by the head of the city Health Department, as all victims in this city have been infants.
“No unusual precautions have been taken here … as paralysis develops from germ life and any child might contract the disease. I have never in my experience known of persons past childhood to suffer from attacks. There is no more danger here than anywhere else of an outbreak of this character.”
In New Jersey the department of health circulated an open letter on July 5.
“The State Department of Health has received a communication from the Health Commissioner of New York City saying that many children are leaving that city to escape exposure to infantile paralysis, which is now prevalent in New York and Brooklyn. While the Commissioner states that every effort will be made to prevent recognized cases from leaving the city, it is quite probable that families in which there are persons already infected may come to New Jersey at this time. Infection is also carried by persons who have been in contact with patients, but who are not themselves ill.
“In view of this situation, the State Department of Health desires to warn all parents to keep their children away from persons who may be infected with infantile paralysis or who may be carriers of the disease. During the outbreak it is best to keep children at home and not permit them to associate with other children, and especially to keep them away from moving picture shows or other gatherings where children are present. In case a child suffers from gastro-intestinal disturbances it is advisable to isolate the child and call a physician at once, as this is usually the way an attack of infantile paralysis begins.”
The same day, the Wilkes-Barre Record tried to put the epidemic into proportion.
“The average of one death an hour was maintained today by the infantile paralysis epidemic, twelve children dying of the disease between 10 o’clock last night and 10 o’clock this morning in New York City.
“During the period there were 17 new cases reported. Of this number, 15 were in or near the seat of the epidemic in Brooklyn.
“In one Brooklyn hospital, there were 225 children ill, many of whom it was said, had slight chance of recovery.
“Officers of the health department were besieged all day by men, women and children, mostly foreigners, who, terrified by the spread of the disease demanded medical advice.
“Since June 26, when the epidemic took hold, 702 cases of infantile paralysis have been reported. Of this number 138 died. Physicians believe that cooler weather, which followed by a shower, will do more than anything else in routing the plague.
“Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood today ordered a virtual quarantine of Governor’s Island because of the epidemic. No children are permitted to visit the island, and the soldiers may not visit their families until further notice.”
At the bottom of page, the Record noted something that struck fear into the hearts of thousands of Jerseyans … it was here.
“Newark, N. J., July 5. – George Wittemeyer, aged 3, is dead, and another boy is in a serious condition from infantile paralysis.”
Shark attacks and German sabotage were sudden and violent. The spread of polio seemed slow and relentless. The question for thousands was, is it stoppable?
Next Week: Fighting back.