"Dr. Moff et says children can get polio from going in the water." "Clean water right out of the hose?" I said skeptically. "How would that give a kid polio?"
"I'm not sure," said Mom. "It's a virus, and it's very contagious. Now scientists are saying not to swim. I saw it in the newspaper. You girls should tell the other kids. Help spread the word about that. Even if it looks perfectly clean— and I don't care how hot it is— you girls don't go near the pool. Understand?" And knowing us as well as she did, she added, "Nancy, I'm counting on you to obey me."
Suzy tucked her knees under her chin, wrapping her arms around her legs, and I put my arm across her shoulders. She wasn't pouting; it made her sad to think about the poor polio children with their wizened limbs and squeaky little wheelchairs, their drawn curtains and dilated eyes longing for outside. It terrified her and broke her heart whenever we heard of another child in our neighborhood tumbling into the bottomless well of his own little bed.
These days we've all but forgotten what a scourge it was, but in 1952, there was a global epidemic. "Infantile paralysis" was a malevolent phantom that shadowed every summer day and haunted every cricket-filled night, poised to cripple and kill with one touch to the spine, the most deeply dreaded childhood disease of the twentieth century worldwide. Mom stroked Suzy's strong shinbone.
"Right this minute, scientists are working to develop a vaccine," she said. "We have to do everything we can to help. Like this bake sale." She set a Tupperware container on the table. Through the milky-opaque plastic, we could just make out mounds of pink-tinted frosting topped with maraschino cherries. "Every little cupcake will do its part to end the epidemic. The money helps the scientists, the scientists help physicians, and if lots more mothers and daughters collect lots more money, and the scientists keep working, someday, they'll be able to give people a shot and—" She snapped her fingers. "No more polio."
Of course, in the oppressive heat of that long, sequestered summer, this grand vision sounded as ridiculous to me and Suzy as a cure for breast cancer sounds to all the naysayers presently telling me how impossible that is.
But in that first prosperous decade following World War II, the idea was still fresh in the American mind that we could accomplish anything when we all pulled together for the good of our nation. An entirely new form of media— television— swept the country faster and more infectiously than any virus, creating (or perhaps simply awakening) a scaly but soft hearted dragon, the mass audience, provoking awareness that a viable vaccine was agonizingly close. Mothers saw their children standing on knobby pony legs just this side of that tipping point, mothers who'd recently awakened to the idea that the hands of women— women's voices, women's work— could build bombs as well as grow roses. In that moment, a singular need met its cultural match. Grassroots philanthropy sprang up, money rushed forth, and before the clock ticked into the sixties, a solution was discovered, a bridge was built between science and society, and the phantom was vanquished.
In the United States alone, 58,000 people were stricken with poliomyelitis in 1952. More than 3,000 died; another 21,000 were left disabled.