Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children

By William M. Tuttle Jr. | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 11 Children's Health and Welfare

IN JULY 1944 Life magazine documented the tragedy befalling scores of children in North Carolina. The cause was infantile paralysis, or polio. Afflicted children brought in from small towns and backwoods in the state were overflowing the isolation ward in Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Perhaps the most evocative photograph in the Life article showed an older boy carrying his sick brother away from the hospital. The little boy had polio, but the hospital had space "only for serious cases." 1

More beds were essential, so the Charlotte health department converted a fresh air camp for underprivileged boys on nearby Lake Hickory into an emergency facility. Pitching in was the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which mobilized local and national resources to set up a forty-bed polio hospital. Within fifty-four hours, the hospital was in operation with a patient in every bed. But children continued arriving; still more beds were needed. The foundation dispatched doctors from Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago; the Red Cross recruited nurses; the Army supplied cots, tents, and labor; and under the watchful eye of armed guards, convicts dug ditches for the hospital's water mains. Meanwhile, local people pitched in by working as carpenters and donating blankets, linens, comic books, and toys. In less than eight weeks, the hospital had expanded to 170 beds. 2

Still, Life's photographs of Hickory's hospital wards were very sad, showing cots layed out side by side, barracks-style. In one picture, a boy lay on his side as a doctor collected spinal fluid from a puncture made in the lower back; in another, nurses placed hot packs on a boy's chest to ease pain and relieve muscle spasms. Also photographed were children in iron lungs, seven of which had been rushed to Hickory; the machines looked like coffins, except that each was filled with a living but totally immobilized person. 3

Like the Second World War itself, the battle for the homefront children's health and welfare produced both victories and defeats. On the one hand, various epidemics afflicted children during the war. On the other hand, the government

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