Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Stricken: The Impact of Disease on Two Massachusetts Families, 1911-50

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Stricken: The Impact of Disease on Two Massachusetts Families, 1911-50

Article excerpt

In 1911, Almena Clayton (1884-1950) became ill with polio. Although her mobility would be compromised somewhat for the rest of her life, she recovered within a few years and was able to resume her former roles as wife, mother, homemaker, and, later, factory worker. In 1926, Alice Cardillo (1885-1944) developed mysterious symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as encephalitis lethargica, popularly known as the "sleeping sickness. " Her illness lasted eighteen years: she never resumed her normal responsibilities and was an invalid for many years before her death. Although nearly the same age, these two women, related by marriage, developed their illnesses at very different times in their families' life cycles: Almena was only twenty-seven years old with young children to care for, while Alice was in her early forties and the mother of young adult children when her mysterious illness began.

Themes of reliance, resilience, and shared identity emerged as powerful forces in shaping the individuals involved as they coped with family tragedy with limited economic means and within the constraints of their circumscribed worlds. Their struggles contribute to our understanding of how families during this era managed to adjust when a parent was unable, either temporarily or permanently, to carry on with household and child-care responsibilities.

The author, Anita Danker, is now retired after a long career in history and social studies education. She is related to the two Massachusetts families profiled in this study. An unpublished memoir written by the author's great-aunt furnished much of the information about Almena Clayton's battle with polio. Clayton was the author's maternal grandmother. The principal source for the story of Alice Cardillo's ordeal with encephalitis lethargica was a collaborative family history that Danker cowrote with a cousin based on interviews conducted between 2010 and 2014 as well as on vital records, documents, letters, and photographs. Cardillo was the author's paternal grandmother.

In the spring of 1911, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of three young children in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, fell ill with a serious and puzzling affliction. A former laundress and millworker from French-speaking Nova Scotia, she lay in bed for six weeks, her skin pale and waxen, running a dangerously high fever and moaning in pain. Her rigid right leg was suspended in midair, attached to a wooden block hanging from a hook that her frantic husband, as directed by the local doctor, had hammered into the ceiling. Her husband and her twin sister, who left her own family in the care of neighbors and rushed to help, did their best to comfort the patient and her bewildered children, including a baby not yet a year old. The family doctor struggled to make a diagnosis, but Almena Clayton would learn only later that her weeks of acute pain, months of grueling recovery, and forever after shortened right leg were the results of polio, a viral infection that began appearing with alarming frequency in New England at the time.1 Yet Almena would recover within a year and be able to resume her roles as wife and mother of young children.

Fifteen years later, another Massachusetts mother in the prime of her life was felled by a baffling malady after the birth of her eighth surviving child. No family member seemed able to pinpoint exactly when Alice Cardillos heartbreaking ordeal began. They recalled only that she did not recover after her last pregnancy, and she began to lapse into a pattern of extreme fatigue and endless sleep. Before succumbing to the mysterious illness, she had been the center of her devoted brood's universe, overseeing their lively activities in a sprawling Victorian home in the Dorchester section of Boston. They remembered her as a strict disciplinarian and a talented cook, preparing traditional Italian meals for them and the stream of visitors who appeared on weekends to seek advice on a variety of matters from their father, a respected member of the local immigrant community. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.