That other dreadful epidemic disease – Polio

SELHuG Committee member Barbara Chandler remembers the outbreak of another deadly virus – Polio – in 1949 and how it changed her life forever.

I was asked to write something for the newsletter and thought I’d copy out some stuff from the memoirs that I’m writing for my grandchildren. Given our context, I thought I’d add something about polio, as it is another epidemic disease which, until the mid 50s, when vaccines were developed and used, many people in Britain suffered from, and which still has no cure. There’s lots online about it, so I’ll just quote a few bits from the Action (medical research for children) website.

Let me put in this one, first, just in case we get complacent:

“Worldwide polio cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases then, to 74 reported cases in 2015. But as long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Failure to eradicate polio completely could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”

“Polio is caused by the poliovirus, a highly contagious virus specific to humans. It enters the body through the nose or mouth and develops in the throat and intestines. The polio virus may go on to invade the central nervous system, destroying or damaging the nerve cells that control muscles, resulting in varying degrees of weakness, then paralysis. Polio mainly affects children aged under five years of age. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and, among those paralysed, five to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. There is no cure for polio once a person becomes infected; it can only be prevented by immunization.” 

Up to the first half of the 20th century, Polio was pretty endemic, and outbreaks would flare up anywhere. There seems to be common agreement that it’s a very, very old disease that humans carried around with them and, paradoxically, most remained immune… until we all started getting better sanitation and cleanliness: this meant that many older people who might have never have caught the illness, or who might have had it in their childhoods with only a mild dose, instead had no immunity and so caught it badly.

In the UK there was a big outbreak in 1947, and many deaths and many many more people permanently physically impaired…website again:

“Did you know that Great British Bake Off’s Mary Berry contracted polio at the age of 13 and had to spend three months in hospital? This resulted in her having a twisted spine, a weaker left hand and thinner left arm. She has said that the period of forced separation from her family while in hospital ‘toughened [her] up’ and taught her to make the most of every opportunity she would have. 

“The father of Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, was paralysed by the infection when he was 21. Michael Flanders was one half of the world-famous singing duo of that era, Flanders and Swann. He survived as a young man, but his paralysis due to polio meant he was forced to use a wheelchair. He died, aged just 53, through complications caused by the disease. Other well-known names affected outside of the UK as children include Mia Farrow, Donald Sutherland and Joni Mitchell. (op cit)

My life was permanently impacted by polio, in the outbreak of 1949

The outbreak was a cause of fear and I am told that swimming pools were closed and people were advised that if they got an unexplained temperature, they should get medical help at once and isolate themselves. 

The following is a (lightly edited) extract from my memoirs:

My sister was born in northwest London in 1944. I was born in 1946, also in London. In 1948 our father wanted to get us all out of London, so found a house for us in a 1930’s – built village outside Portslade, Sussex, called Mile Oak, from whence he could commute to work by bus and train.  I got terrible measles just as we moved and had to be kept back in hospital. My father collected me and he says he posted me full of biscuits all the way down on the train. I do remember the thick London smog: I have a vivid image of looking down a hill with the lights of trams and buses and the street lights, all glowing in this thick green haze.

I think I remember my third birthday – January 1949 – and Mummy lighting candles on a cake on a table. I also remember, later that year, Mummy being taken ill and carried in a chair down the stairs by the ambulance men.  I remember her looking at me and saying ‘see you soon’. When my sister and I recently talked about our earliest memories, we found out that she too remembers this scene very vividly as her last sighting of our mother. This was on a Friday. She had caught polio. 

She was 7 months pregnant – though that was never discussed with us at the time. She never came back – died on the Sunday… 3 days!

It transpired that Mummy had taken us to visit a good friend, but when we’d arrived at their front door, we had been turned away: ‘there’s an unexplained fever in the house, don’t come in!’  A friend of the family told me how our mummy’s best friend Lily was knitting socks for the baby when she got the news… ‘Blackie can’t be dead, I’m knitting…’

It must have been devastating. We weren’t taken to any funeral or to see Mummy’s grave. I later found out from my sister that our father told her (at age 5) that Mummy had snuffed out like a candle. 

Granny and Grandpa came to live with us. Granny told me that Mummy was in heaven looking out for me. This comforted me through the next few years.

Our future emotional lives were both affected by this event. And speaking to others who lost their mothers I think anyone would have had profound effects from it. My sister never seemed to have enough self-confidence and later developed mental ill-health. I think I was OK in terms of daily life but I developed a hole in the middle – or maybe a steely core – as I don’t think I have ever quite managed to get totally committed to loving another person, especially after our granny’s death, when I was 9 or 10: once again, we weren’t allowed to a funeral or a grave and none of it was discussed with us.

You can imagine that this part of my history has left me with a few very strong opinions:

  3. ALWAYS try to talk death through with children and answer their questions… never leave them knowing nothing, thinking that their feeling and fears don’t matter.

WHO Factsheet on Polio HERE

Barbara Chandler, 10 April 2020