In 1950, My Family Suffered A Different Outbreak In Our Town: A Polio Epidemic


By Mariflo Stephens

It didn’t take long to happen. Two weeks into the pandemic, a pedestrian on the sidewalk in Charlottesville crossed the street when she saw me. I said hello; she didn’t return the greeting or wave her hand. She just moved away from me.

Suddenly, I’m 70 years back in time. It’s 1950. I’m not me. I’m my mother.

“People would cross the street when they saw you coming. Everybody knew about the polio epidemic and how bad it was here,” my mother would tell me, recalling how, in summer 1950, the world treated our western Virginia town of Wytheville, described by a Richmond newspaper as “the nation’s hardest hit.”

Our town, with a population of 5,000, suffered greatly from the polio epidemic, when 189 people were stricken, almost two dozen died and the only fully operating businesses were the two funeral homes. Wytheville had the highest per capita rate of polio in the country, the Virginia State Health Bulletin reported in 1951.

My 9-year-old brother, nicknamed Skipper, died of polio that summer, six weeks before I was born.

I always knew how hard my brother’s death had been on our family. My brother suffered the bulbar type of polio, the kind that can paralyze the circulatory and respiratory system, and his originated in the throat. His illness was not the more familiar “infantile paralysis” that left victims such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt on crutches and in leg braces.

Skipper was ill for only one day. He’d been admitted to a hospital in Roanoke, about 75 miles from Wytheville, after he woke up and had lost the power of speech. He’d been to a doctor that day. That night, before he went to sleep, my brother told my mother he was no longer normal.

My older sister, Melva Stephens Potts, who had polio and recovered but died of cancer in 1996, remembered squeezing oranges to get her strength back.

I remember confronting my mother repeatedly, when I was at least 8 years old, about how people treated each other during the epidemic. I would tell her that my aunts had told me not one nurse attended my birth, coming as it did during the epidemic, and the doctor came into her room only in time to “catch” me.

I always conveyed how angry that made me. “Those people were mean,” I told her.

“No, they were afraid,” she always said. “I can’t make you understand.”

I understand now.

Misinformation and lack of information frightened people during the polio epidemic, not unlike today.

Earlier this year, I would watch New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s daily briefings on my television as he cautioned us not to “underestimate this virus,” urging action over fear. “We’re fighting the virus and we’re fighting panic,” he would say.

Often, when my mother talked about the epidemic, she’d say that if people didn’t cross the street to avoid you, “They’d put handkerchiefs over their mouths.” And now it’s happening to me.

At 69, I am in an age group vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. I wear a mask and gloves. My husband, who is in remission from acute myeloid leukemia, was tested three times for covid-19 when he spiked a fever while undergoing chemotherapy. He tested negative. He didn’t have the virus; he did have pneumonia.

He was treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Before he was discharged I had to go to the hospital to learn to flush his PICC line, a tube leading from inside his body to the outside so he can receive chemo easily. The hospital was closed to visitors and before I could enter my temperature was taken, and I was stopped by three security guards. I was not surprised. Now, as then, people are cautious.

Then, as now, it was a virus, and people didn’t know exactly how it spread. Swimming pools were closed during the polio epidemic because it was thought that water could be a factor.

In “A Summer Without Children: An Oral History of Wythe County, Virginia’s 1950 Polio Epidemic,” published by the Wytheville Department of Museums, one pharmacist recalls shooting rats at the town dump each night because he thought they were carriers. Flies and mosquitoes were also thought to be carriers.

Then children were ordered to stay in their own yards. Now it’s called social distancing.

I didn’t learn until more than 20 years ago that a local family generously offered their cabin in Hungry Mother State Park, 25 miles from Wytheville, and my family sought sanctuary there.

In its 1951 report on the epidemic, the Virginia State Health Bulletin concluded: “Investigations were made of water, milk supplies, sewage disposal, fly prevalence and personal contact with other cases. To date the study has revealed no common dominator among the cases reported.”

One difference between today’s pandemic and the 1950 polio epidemic was the open racial discrimination, which the oral history called “an ugly fact of life in the South.” Racial differences affected health care then, as now, but in different ways.

The Roanoke hospital, which treated the area’s White victims, refused to accept stricken African Americans as patients. Wytheville’s African Americans, the history reads, “Had to go to Richmond’s St. Philip Hospital over three hundred miles away, in the summer heat and humidity. Even when a local doctor tried to persuade Roanoke by phone to take one, the hospital administrators refused admission.”

Mrs. Sammie Cook, the mother of victim Betty Jean Cook-Brown, had this to say: “It took all that time to make that drive to Richmond, which, we think, may be what caused the paralysis in her jaw.”

Today, African Americans may not be refused admission to hospitals, but they are suffering disproportionately from the coronavirus, which has been attributed to poverty and inadequate housing conditions that are the legacy of segregation.

The coronavirus will probably live long in our memories, but the polio epidemic has been mostly forgotten.

In a social history titled “In the Shadow of Polio,” published in 1996, author Kathryn Black writes, “So thoroughly have we expunged polio from our memory that today the historian David Halberstam could write an eight-hundred-page social history of the fifties without addressing the disease, not even the discovery of the vaccines.”

I remember, as an adult, learning that a writer wanted to interview my pharmacist father about the epidemic and went to his drugstore to see him. My father wouldn’t talk to him.

Not one word.


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