The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown

The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown

The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown

The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown


From the 1930s to the 1950s, in response to the rising epidemic of paralytic poliomyelitis (polio), Texas researchers led a wave of discoveries in virology, rehabilitative therapies, and the modern intensive care unit that transformed the field nationally.

The disease threatened the lives of children and adults in the United States, especially in the South, arousing the same kind of fear more recently associated with AIDS and other dread diseases. Houston and Harris County, Texas, had the second-highest rate of infection in the nation, and the rest of the Texas Gulf Coast was particularly hard-hit by this debilitating illness. At the time, little was known, but eventually the medical responses to polio changed the medical landscape forever.

Polio also had a sweeping cultural and societal effect. It engendered fearful responses from parents trying to keep children safe from its ravages and an all-out public information blitz aimed at helping a frightened population protect itself. The disease exacted a very real toll on the families, friends, healthcare resources, and social fabric of those who contracted the disease and endured its acute, convalescent, and rehabilitation phases.

In The Polio Years in Texas, Heather Green Wooten draws on extensive archival research as well as interviews conducted over a five-year period with Texas polio survivors and their families. This is a detailed and intensely human account of not only the epidemics that swept Texas during the polio years, but also of the continuing aftermath of the disease for those who are still living with its effects.

Public health and medical professionals, historians, and interested general readers will derive deep and lasting benefits from reading The Polio Years in Texas.


The frightening news often arrived in may. children would complain of weariness, backache and a stiff neck. Then paralysis would set in. Households filled with dread as polio swept through U.S. communities. the disease haunted everyone. With the exception of aids, no other twentieth-century disease has aroused such a high and sustained level of public fear. Wherever polio struck, schools, swimming pools, theaters, and other entertainment venues closed. the large patient load quickly overwhelmed many hospitals. Local newspapers issued a daily tally of polio cases reported throughout the community. in the public mind, polio became synonymous with crippled youth, the fearsome iron lung, even death. During the first half of the twentieth century, the scourge of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States appeared unstoppable.

The first major polio epidemic in the United States struck the New York region in 1916. Thereafter, epidemics of paralytic polio continued in the United States and increasingly involved sections of the country in addition to the northeastern region. the mysterious nature of polio intensified public fear. No one knew for certain how the disease was spread and there was no cure. By the end of World War ii, scientists had succeeded in discovering effective treatments for many bacterial diseases. Polio, however, was caused by a virus; and the transmission and pathogenesis of most viral infections remained unclear. With the introduction of the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines, the polio epidemics that had plagued the nation for decades rapidly ceased (see appendix A). By the mid-1960s, polio incidence in the United States had dropped to an average of twenty cases per year.

Medical breakthroughs are rarely the work of a very few researchers. They are typically the result of collaboration, imagination, logical . . .

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