A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America

More than just a history of the frantic search for a polio vaccine, A Paralyzing Fear also explores the fear of disability that drove it. Even after the causes of polio were understood, small outbreaks could mean the ostracisim of entire families and neighborhoods, or snowball into panics like the mass exodus from New York City. The ominous television ads promoting fear of “the Crippler”, a shadowy scythe-bearing personification of the virus, were the most effective in raising money for research. (Later, when polio was nearly beaten and fear abated, research organizations like the March of Dimes had to take out multimillion dollar loans to finish their work.)

The fears of the polio patients themselves are also explored, from the black children who were given inadequate care and thus suffered more, to the white males who were never taught that they could still live full lives with a disability, to the iron lung-using woman who tearfully recalls being threatened by a nurse as a little girl that her ventilator would be turned off if she didn’t stop crying.

Once the vaccine was found and the unaffected could relax again, donations to find a cure or maintain the (previously free) care that people with polio received never materialized. As the most famous person with polio once said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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