White House Wheelchairs And Lungs of Iron


“Finally the cataclysm began – the monstrous headache, the enfeebling  exhaustion, the severe nausea, the raging fever, the unbearable muscle ache, followed in another forty-eight hours by the paralysis.”

That passage  is from Phillip Roth’s novel, “Nemesis” in which he  described the onset of Poliomyelitis (commonly known as polio)  a disease transmitted by viral infection. Many polio victims experienced muscle weakness, sometimes with permanent paralysis, malformed limbs, and in some cases, death.

The US first reached epidemic levels of polio in the early 1900s, and the scourge terrorized the United States, for nearly half a century.

New Cataclysm

By the time I rolled around, the first polio vaccine (the Salk Vaccine) was pretty well established and the second one (the Sabin vaccine ) was already in  distribution. Thus, most of my knowledge of the polio epidemic, came from books, movies, and memories shared by people  around me, including  my older siblings.

In light of the current viral onslaught, Covid-19 ( or…novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 ) that has wreaked havoc on much of the world, I endeavored to read more about the US polio epidemic.

I was rather surprised by what I found:

  1. The US polio epidemic peaked in 1952.
  2. That year, there  were 57,879 polio cases and
  3. There were  3,145 deaths
  4. Permanent paralysis is estimated to have occurred in .5% of infections.

I’d assumed that all of the numbers (cases, permanent afflictions and deaths) would be significantly larger. Certainly, they are frightening, but the statistics pale in comparison to what the US is currently experiencing with Covid-19.

As much as it feels like it’s been with us forever, Covid-19 is a relatively new nemesis. The US is in its 10th month of Covid-19 cases.

Here is a statistical snapshot of Covid-19 in the US (as of October 25, 2020):

  1. The earliest US cases occurred in January of 2020
  2. There have been over 8.3 million US  cases and
  3. The current death total exceeds 222,000.

Note: Among Covid-19 patients, who are no longer are infected, there have been many reported cases of long-term symptoms, requiring extended hospitalization, physical therapy and other treatments. Though since we are in the early stages of this pandemic, the extent, or duration of these afflictions is not clear.


I shared some of the figures about polio with my older sister  (14 years my senior).  As I stated previously, I was surprised by the figures.  She was shocked.

On the phone with her several  weeks ago, when I recited some these statistics. her reaction was: “Are you fucking kidding me?!?”

This was followed by, “We weren’t allowed to do jack-shit during  the summer! We didn’t have to worry about our government requiring social distancing, our parents made us do that!”

Like many people her age, the specter of polio looms large in her memory. Covid-19 looms large in her current life. This is not surprising.

State of Denial

Though many people, my sister’s age or older, who can recall the polio epidemic, are dismissive of Covid-19. This is really surprising to me.

Polio seemed to strike fear into the US, summer after summer. Though statistically, its worst year was way less menacing than Covid-19’s first 9 months.

I realize that there were polio-deniers, though it’s impossible to determine the numbers, or the extent of disinformation from that point in history, nearly 70 years in the past. Likewise, we won’t get a good handle on the extent of Covid19-denial, or disinformation present in 2020.

Though I suspect that the level of denial might have been lower for polio than it is for Covid-19. I say this because, in part, because the cause of polio was not known for many years.

And it was persistent, and prevalent in some areas every summer. While scientists (and  seemingly everybody with an internet connection) are still wrestling with details, it is accepted that Covid is a respiratory-borne virus.

The Look of Polio

Another reason that I suspect a population of deniers was smaller is that people, knew what polio LOOKED like.  There  were clear reminders that  polio was a real threat.
In the early 1950s  memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was still fresh with parents and their older children during the mid 50’s. There had been clear, though intermittent, visual evidence that he could not walk without assistance.

(Note: I chose the term ‘intermittent” because The Roosevelt White House tightly  controlled FDR’s public image, thus only  scant few photos or video of the president sitting in a wheelchair, or video of him walking with leg braces were ever circulated.

Though people knew of his physical challenges, regardless of whether they’d ever actually seen evidence.)

Then there were the polio wards. The most-disturbing memories I have (from books, and documentaries) were patients in iron lungs; where victims with paralyzed diaphragms were provided machine-assistance to enable them to breathe.

I remember seeing two different types of ward: somewhat compact rooms where the iron lungs were stacked like bunk beds, and others with expansive open rooms, with patients occupying iron lungs as far as the eye (or at least a camera view-finder) could see:

Polio Ward Showing Many Patients in Iron Lung (assisted breathing device)

Iron Lungs, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital Polio Ward
(Source US Food And Drug Administration)

Many photographic examples  were of pediatric wards. The term “infantile paralysis” was a commonly-used synonym for polio; because unlike Covid-19, the largest portion of patients who suffered debilitating illness or death were children. Many of the victims were under the age of 5.

I think this is a key difference why  some  people can be dismissive of  Covid-19’s severity. With our current scourge, it’s easier for us to accept that the lives of older people, or with an underlying condition, are at risk with any kind of respiratory infection.

While the idea of children becoming disabled or dying, is universally unsettling.

We’ve had many potent visual reminders of  Covid-19: bodies being loaded onto freezer trucks, exhausted nurses and doctors, families saying their goodbyes to loved ones over Zoom video.

I’m not sure if any have the impact of a an incumbent president in a wheelchair, or scores  of children, encased in a machine providing them breathing assistance.

Decades from now, which, if any,  will be the startling visual reminders of what Covid-19 LOOKED like?


In recent years, there have been several medical opinions that President Roosevelt did not actually suffer from polio. Many claim his symptoms were more consistent with Guillan-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition, induced by a bacterial infection.

Though throughout the onset of his illness through his death was believed to have had polio.  This perception may have helped to accelerate the development of polio vaccine, since FDR was the founder of National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as March of Dimes), which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the development of the first polio vaccine.


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