Polio: Child Victims and Care


Figure 1.--The bishop of London dedicated the new buildings of the Heritage Craft Schools at Chatley. After the ceremony the Bishop took part in a game of stool tall and received numerous gifts from the crippled children, there incluring a pair of boots for which he is seen being measured. The photograph is undated, but was probably taken about 1930.

Polio was a particularly feared disease because it was so poorly understood, struck randomly, and most insidious of all mostly affected children. By the 1920s-50s huge numbers of children were being stricken by polio. Horific images of children hobeled and dependant on crutches or even more tragically clinging to life in iron lungs haunted parents with small children. Facilities were created to deal with the needs of these children, including boarding faciities. Quite a number of the child victims were instituionalized. Poor families in particular had difficulties caring here for badly crippled children. In an age in which mannual labor was more important than today, many polio victims were unable to support themselves when they became adults.

Feared Disease

Polio was a particularly feared disease because it was so poorly understood, struck randomly, and most insidious of all mostly affected children. Therecwas no real way of prorecting children. It struck rich as well as poor children. Many diseases are associated with povery, influenced by poor sanitation, lack of medical care, and an inadequate diet. This was not the case of polio which struck accross class barries. Horific images of children hobeled and dependant on crutches or even more tragically clinging to life in iron lungs haunted parents with small children.

Iron Lungs

Polio affected different children in various ways. The best known is the way polio affected childrens legs, making it difficult or impossible to walk. Some children found it difficult to breathe. This was a particularly deadly form of polio. Reasearchers in the late 1920s developed iron lungs to help these children breathe. The device saved the lives of thousands of children. These children often had to be put in iron lungs.. Foe many children, this was only necessary for a short period. Other children more severly affected might spend years in an iron lung. They could be outsdide it for short periods. Some children spent 10-15 years in an iron lung, usually after this their bodies would break down and they would die. Parents shuddered at the site and children were terrified. Polio vaccination programs rapidly reduced the number of new children affected viryually eraducating the disease.

Sister Kenny (1880-1952)

Sister Elizabeth Kenny was a remarkable Australian nurse who made valuable contributions in developing procedures to care for children afflcted with polio. Elizabeth was born in 1880 amd was raised with her five brothers and sisters on rural (bush) homesteads. At first they lived in New South Wales and then moved to Queensland. She was something of a tomboy and loved outdoor activities, especially riding horses. She broke her wrist as a teenager in a fall from a horse. Her doctor, Aeneas McDonnell, introduced her to textbooks about bones and muscles which she read with considerable interest while she recovered. That began a long, rewarding relationship. As a result of her reading, she devised an exercise program for one of her brothers. Bill was a very frail boy, but using Elizabeth's system built iup his body. This led her to persue a career in nursing. At the time it was still virtually unheard of for a woman to be a doctor. She became a "bush nurse", working in rural areas where people had no access to doctors. As a result, she took on responsibilities that dictors normally performed in cities. Among her varied duties was caring for many broken bones. Nurse Kenny in 1911 encountered a little crippled girl and she had no idea what disease was responsible. She wrote to Dr. McDonnell who explained that it was probably Infantile Paralysis and there was no known cure. He advised her, "... so do the best you can." So Kenny improvised based on what she had learned about bones and muscles. She applied hot, damp rags to the girl's legs to try to increase flexibility so the that the muscles wouldn't atrophy from lack of usage. In fact the girl recovered. The little girl's case was part of a local outbreak afecting 20 children. She treated six of the children, all of whom recovered. The local medical estasnlishment was not at all impressed. Rather than applying hot packs and attempting to promote ysage, the standrd treatment of the day to put affected limbs in splints and braces or even casts to imbolize the limb. The children involved suffered terribly. Doctors did not at all like the idea of being told that they were mistaken by a woman, especially a woman with no real academic credentials. Another problem was thsat she was wrong about the diagnosis. She thouht polio was a mussle disease. It was not. Even though she was wrong about the diagnosis, her treatment was in fact more humane and more effecacious than that perscrived by the medical estanlishment. She became very frustrated that no one would listen to her. Australia joined Britain in World War II (1914). Nurse Kenny signed for war duty where she required the title "Sister Kenny". She returned to Queensland after the War. Australia was affected by a particulsar severe polio epidemic (1932). Parents learned about Sister Kenny's procedures and over the next 4 years four Kenny clinics treated 600 children with considerable success. This made it difficult to continue ignore her. A special Royal Commission assessed her methods, but continued to support the medical estanlishment. Basicall doctors explained her success by questioning that the children who recovered ever had polio to begin with. Some Australian doctors were impressed and suggested she go overseas where the medical estanlishment might be more open to new ideas. In the midst of World War II, this meant the United States. Thus Sister Kenny headed for America (1940). She brought her adopted daughter Mary with her. America at th time was suffering from a severe polio epidemic. She demonstrated her techniques to American medical personnel, many of which accepted her methods. She in fact was treated as a miricle worker and heroine by the American public, although the medical establishment also resisted her techniques. She was over joyed with the publicresponse after her experience in Australia. She opened the Sister Kenny Institute in

Extent

By the 1920s-50s huge numbers of children were being stricken by polio.

Insitutional Care

Facilities were created to deal with the needs of these children, including boarding faciities. Quite a number of the child victims were instituionalized. Poor families in particular had difficulties caring here for badly crippled children. In an age in which mannual labor was more important than today, many polio victims were unable to support themselves when they became adults.





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Created: 7:14 PM 4/16/2006
Last updated: 11:55 PM 7/9/2006