Polio Invades Ocean County
In my haste to leave on vacation, I filed the last in this series early. Here is the missing installment; I’m sorry for any confusion.
With the approach of Labor Day, the summer of 1916 was drawing to a close. That year businesses on the Jersey Shore had suffered as newspapers were consumed with two stories: shark attacks and an epidemic of infantile paralysis. On Aug. 18, the New Jersey Courier was able to report from Beach Haven, the site of the first reported shark fatality.
“The Engleside hotel is well filled with guests. … Bathing seems to have recovered from the shark scare to a very large degree, though our people here are not particularly fond of having the shark headlined from day to day in the newspapers as a Beach Haven attraction. Sharks are no more common here than elsewhere along the beach; and bathing is much safer here than in many other places.”
Until August, Southern Ocean County, with its clean air and water, had been spared the panic of infantile paralysis as it had spread from Brooklyn, New York to Trenton and Philadelphia. Governments had ordered quarantines and doctors searched for a cure, but all in vain. On a back page of the same Courier was an ominous story.
“Paralysis at Spray Beach? Report says that a city family arrived at Spray Beach on Wednesday with a child suffering with the paralysis. As a result, the Cedar Run Sunday school picnic, which was there that day, was held up till 10 p.m. Report further says that the family, including the sick child, disappeared that night.”
One week later, the Courier reported LBI’s good fortune had run out.
“All Long Beach is under strict quarantine because of a case that developed the latter part of last week at the Engleside, Beach Haven, when the little granddaughter of William Haines, a guest there, was pronounced to have the disease. Every precaution was taken at the hotel, and in Beach Haven. A guard is stationed on the Long Beach bridge, and no child under 16 years is allowed to cross to the island. Also at the railroad stations watch is kept, and anyone bringing small children is sent away on the next train.”
While LBI tried to isolate itself from the disease, it wasn’t that easy on the mainland.
“On the other hand, except at Lakewood, none of the interior towns have adopted the strict quarantine by means of patrol. The large number of roads by which anyone could get in that really wanted to and the expense of patrolling them all has been, perhaps, the controlling reason. Again it is felt that if patrols are of any value there are enough between these towns and any place where the disease exists to ward off anybody coming from the disease-affected territory, and if the patrols on the roads now established can not guard them another guard here would be of no more use.”
On Aug. 20, New York had closed all schools until Oct. 1; the same day, a reporter from the New York Tribune ventured into a quarantined section of the city.
“I spent yesterday in a section of Brooklyn where there are more poliomyelitis placards to the block than anywhere else in the city.
“Before I set out I had supposed I knew something of the horrors of the epidemic and of the tremendous struggle there has been and must still be to get it under control. But I didn’t. When you have posted the dreaded quarantine signs yourself, while the inmates of the house try in panic to tear them down; when you have witnessed the suffering of the children and ignorance of the parents and the poverty in which many of them live, you only begin to understand. You realize better the danger of infection when you have seen a child die and have told its parents they must not kiss it, and have explained to the undertaker it is to be buried in a sealed coffin within twenty-four hours.”
On Sept. 2, the New York Sun published an article challenging attempts to limit the spread of the disease.
“When in the early stages of the epidemic of infantile paralysis THE SUN stood alone in the endeavor to allay the hysteria that appeared to take possession of the health authorities of municipalities contiguous to this city.
“We find in the last issue of the New York Medical Journal the following: ‘In view of the fact that poliomyelitis is rarely contracted from contact with an acute case and of the accepted idea that it is mostly spread by adults, exclusion quarantine should logically be enforced on adults rather than on children. Rigidly enforced, such a quarantine would stop all travel, with the result that public resentment would immediately terminate it.’”
As some battled to contain the epidemic, others were fighting to cure it. The Philadelphia Ledger of Sept. 8 noted, “An offer of blood from serum for the treatment of infantile paralysis was made by a fifteen-year-old girl to Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, State Health Commissioner, today in response to an urgent appeal by the health authorities.
“The girl, Gladys Christine Douglas, had the disease when she was three years old.”
The little girl wrote, “I write to tell you that I had infantile paralysis when I was three years old and I am now 16. … As I am fully developed and perfectly healthy Daddy and I thought that if any of my blood would help you in your great fight I should willingly give it. The only defect I have is a slightly underdeveloped left leg from my knee down.”
The letter touched many.
‘“There is genuine chivalry in her offer,’ one official said. ‘It undoubtedly will save more than one life. Many little victims could be saved and many more spared being crippled for life if other volunteers would come forward’.”
That same day the Courier reported that the disease was now in Ocean County.
“One death from infantile paralysis is reported in the county the past week, the first recorded. It was that of Ernest, the little child of William Chamberlain of Lakewood, and grandson of George Chamberlain of Forked River. The child was taken ill, it is reported, on Sunday, August 27, was later taken to Kimball hospital, and died there the next Tuesday. The case was diagnosed by the physicians as paralysis.
“Another case is reported from the upper end of Stafford township, not far from the village of Barnegat.
“Toms River had a scare last week, which only lasted a day, as the supposed case had recovered in that time, showing that if it were the dreaded disease, it was very light.”
On the 13th the Ledger carried a story that could explain the failure of attempts to contain the disease.
“A sale of health certificates either counterfeit or real in New Jersey, was revealed to the New Jersey authorities today by Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, Commissioner of Health of Pennsylvania, who pointed out the danger of such a practice during the infantile paralysis epidemic. An investigation was begun at once by Dr. J.H. Price, New Jersey Health Commissioner.
“Doctor Dixson told Doctor Price over the long-distance telephone that certificates could be purchased in a certain New Jersey town for ten and twenty-five cents. The slips were worded correctly and signed by a person who styled himself an agent of the New Jersey Board of Health.
‘“Untold danger, not only for New Jersey, but for Pennsylvania, lies in such a procedure,’ said Doctor Dixon. ‘Quarantine laws become useless and precautions futile.’”
The rapid progress of the disease once it was contracted was one of the causes for parents to panic. From the Asbury Park Press of Sept. 16, “Taken ill yesterday afternoon of infantile paralysis, Norman Leveson, 6, son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Leveson of Elizabeth, died at 5 o’clock this morning at the boarding house where the family were spending the summer.”
Sept. 18, “Hugh Nesbitt Camp, 3d, 17-year-old son of Hugh N. Camp Jr. of 150 West Fifty-ninth street New York died yesterday in his parents’ summer home in Seabright of infantile paralysis.
“The youth was taken ill with a headache Friday night and his ailment was thought to be indigestion. Saturday night it was diagnosed as infantile paralysis.
“The boy stood 6 feet 4 inches in his stocking feet. His father is a banker.”
Sept. 20, “RED BANK – After having been under the care of four physicians and only sick in bed a day, John T. VanNostrand … died late yesterday afternoon of infantile paralysis. He was 3 years old. The lad was first stricken Saturday and got better, but Sunday it was necessary to summon a physician. The throat became affected and the decline was rapid.”
Clean air and water quarantines and serums had all failed. Nothing seemed to halt the terror of infantile paralysis during the summer of 1916. One hundred years later, most young parents haven’t even heard of the disease; some stories do have a happy ending.
Next Week: White House at the Jersey Shore.