Remembering A Time When Polio Paralyzed America | Connecticut Public Radio

Remembering A Time When Polio Paralyzed America

Jan 21, 2021

It was a plague that came every summer and left thousands of American children paralyzed -- or dead -- in its wake. This hour we take a look at the legacy of polio.

How did the development of the polio vaccine change the course of history?

Nearly eradicated, the disease is still be found in a handful of countries. Could we see polio outbreaks in the US today?

We want to hear from you. Did you or a family member survive polio?

Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.


  • Dr. David Oshinsky - Author of Polio: An American Story, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2006. He the Director of Medical Humanities at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and a professor of history at NYU (@DavidOshinsky)
  • Joann Griswold - Resident of Amherst Mass and 1954 graduate of UConn School of Nursing; she was a registered nurse for 64 years, including at many hospitals in Connecticut and Massachusetts
  • Dr. Melissa Held - Infectious disease specialist and assistant dean of medical education at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and associate professor of pediatric infectious disease at UConn School of Medicine
  • Kim Brown - Granby resident; she has a primary immune deficiency


NPR: Defeating Polio, The Disease That Paralyzed America – “Think of it: Between 1937 and 1997, Post-Polio Health International estimates in one table, more than 457,000 people in the U.S. — and hundreds of thousands more around the world — suffered from some form of polio. Thousands and thousands were paralyzed in this country alone. Within two years of the 1955 announcement [of the Salk vaccine], U.S. polio cases dropped 85 to 90 percent, Joe Palca of NPR reported.”

Gizmodo: The last of the iron lungs (November 2017) - “In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the country were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes—especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults, and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.’”

UConn Dolan Collection Nursing History Blog: Iron Lung Exhibit: Our Alumni Remember (January 2016) – “Joann Griswold (Class of 1954) vividly recalls three patients in iron lungs for whom she cared. One was a four-year-old child: ‘We accessed her bedding and body through elasticized portholes, and this as I recall intrigued her; she would try to grab our hands. I realized that human contact was exceptionally important with a baby or child, and she certainly showed a positive response to holding my hand, and or my gently rubbing her forehead, and bathing her. Although rest was important, once her fever had subsided, she was able to do gentle exercises within the respirator to retain the musculoskeletal function she had. We had to closely monitor her breathing, because people with this type of polio mainly affecting the respiratory system could die suddenly, and because of her age, there was always a nurse or a student nurse with her. She enjoyed being read to, and with the respirator mirror we could show her pictures, which she also enjoyed. It was important to keep her calm so that her weakened respiratory system would not be further compromised by her crying, shouting, etc. We sang to her, talked, read, drew pictures, told stories.’”

Chion Wolf contributed to this show, which originally aired October 18, 2018.