Polio Epidemics pre-WW2

Woman in White Coat paperback, some reference books, my stethoscope, a couple of teeth and a doll box – souvenirs of my various careers

Before the advent of the anti-polio vaccine, in 1955, here in the UK there was an epidemic of poliomyelitis (Infantile Paralysis) every summer.

In 1938, the dreaded disease came to our tenements.

Memoir Extract from Woman in a White Coat Chapter 2 pp 29-30

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We all caught measles, chicken pox and whooping cough. The only immunization we had was against smallpox – it left an ugly scar on your upper arm.There was an outbreak of Infantile Paralysis (Polio) every summer and in all the schools there were children with leg braces to support limbs damaged by the disease. It wasn’t until 1955 that Dr Salk’s anti-polio vaccine became available.

One day that June, I knocked at Violet’s door to ask if she could come out to play – my best friend, Lily, had gone shopping with her elder sister. Violet’s mother said she wasn’t well and soon an ambulance came blaring its way into the street outside. Minutes later I saw Violet being carried out on a stretcher.

The caretaker was sweeping the courtyard when I went down to play after supper.

‘Poor little thing,’ he said. ‘She’s got infantile paralysis. They’ve put her in an iron lung. They only put you in an iron lung when it gets to your chest and you can’t breathe. They’ve closed all the swimming pools because of the epidemic.’

The whole tenement was hushed. No-one knew what to say to Violet’s parents. They had lost their little boy in a dreadful swimming accident the year before and they’d only had the two children.

Three days passed and then I saw men in black suits carrying in a small white coffin. Violet’s was the only Catholic family in the flats and no-one was sure what we were supposed to do. Our parents called and paid their respects, but children were kept away from their flat.

We stood by the gate as Violet’s little coffin was carried out into the waiting hearse. The man who worked in the fabric shop just outside our gate was in tears, twisting his cap in his large hands. Violet had been a special favourite of his. He used to carry her around on his shoulders, playing horses.

For days afterwards, our mothers gathered in worried groups wondering who would be next, but it was only little Violet who caught polio and died. She was younger than me and we didn’t always play together, but the playground seemed empty after she died.


2 thoughts on “Polio Epidemics pre-WW2”

  1. Shows you how important vaccines are. People forget and now we are having measles epidemics in the UK.

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