Today, we wonder where polio came from. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The muscle-crippling disease
poliomyelitis -- polio for short -- had just
come on the American scene when I was a child. The
polio virus travels in water, so my parents
wouldn't let me swim in public pools and beach
areas. Indeed, one book on polio is titled The
Summer Plague for just that reason. Today,
polio is only a bleak memory for older Americans.
It still returns to attack the muscles of its
survivors as they age. But we've stopped seeing new
Polio was pretty obscure before the twentieth
century. There'd been some outbreaks in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and most
victims had been under the age of four. When I was
young, the disease was still called Infantile
The really horrific polio epidemics began in 1916.
By the early '50s it'd been striking some 30,000
people a year. Then the Salk vaccine appeared, and
soon the virus was beaten.
So why did the early twentieth century produce
those terrible epidemics? We had two clues, even
before we knew how to deal with the virus. One was
that polio attacked the middle class more than the
poor. Indeed, one myth of seventy years ago said
that black people didn't get polio. The other clue
lay in the increasing age of victims. Victims of
the 1916 epidemic were generally older than three,
but ninety-five percent were still under the age of
ten. In the 1947 epidemic, almost half the victims
were ten or older.
The cause of the epidemics turns out to've been, of
all things, improved hygiene. There was a time when
everyone got polio. It was in everyone's drinking
water. When it struck a very young child, the child
would suffer a little diarrhea, bounce back, and
then be immune. Polio was rarely severe enough at
that age to cause severe damage, so we were hardly
aware of it. Like measles, mumps, and chicken pox,
the disease simply immunized the child.
Then, in the twentieth century, the industrial
nations cleaned up their water supply systems. As
they did, the general immunity disappeared. When
polio did reach children over three and
young adults, it didn't just cause diarrhea. It
crippled and killed them.
Polio remained incurable. Massage therapies gave
some relief. Franklin Roosevelt took his polio to
Warm Springs, Georgia. George Washington Carver
received a grant to develop a combined massage and
peanut-oil therapy at the Tuskegee Institute. The
fiery Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenney,
swept into the American medical establishment in
1940. Her massage therapy dominated the treatment
of polio until, and after, her death in 1952.
But massage therapies were after-the-fact
treatments of polio. Once we had a vaccine to
prevent polio, those therapies faded from our
consciousness. So the most terrifying scourge of
the early twentieth century came and went. It was a
disease brought on by something new in human
experience. Polio was the completely unexpected
result of our new clean-water delivery systems.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Paul, J. R., A History of Poliomyelitis. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
Gould, T., A Summer Plague: Polio and its
Survivors. New Haven: Yale University Press,
Cohn, V., Sister Elizabeth Kenney, the Woman Who
Challenged the Doctors. Minneapolis: The
University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
articles on poliomyelitis. The word doesn't appear
until the later editions. The 1970 edition has the
I am grateful to Thomas DeGregori, UH Economics
Department, for suggesting the topic.
A March of Dimes poster to raise funds for the
against polio. This is from 1952, during the
War and just before the Salk vaccine went into use.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.