Health and Healing in North Carolina - An Interactive Timeline

The Polio Epidemic

1944 - Institutional Event

"I won’t ever forget the feeling in my legs when I lost the use of them.
It was just such a weird feeling.
It was just like it went through me,
just a surge went through my body.
I can feel it right now just thinking about it.
It was very frightening for a little 14-year-old girl to think,
gosh, my life’s gone, you know?”

—Addie Flowers Vance, Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, 1996

The word “polio” no longer sends ripples of fear through parents across the United States. But as early as 1916, large outbreaks of poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, swept through cities and towns, crippling and killing thousands. The victims were mainly children—but not always. In 1921, at the age of 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt was left with severe paralysis from the disease and spent most of his presidency in a wheelchair. During his second term, he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known later as the March of Dimes.

Polio is an infectious viral disease that enters through the mouth or nose, then travels to the spinal cord. There it attacks nerves that control muscle activity, causing temporary or permanent paralysis. Usually polio affects leg, arm, stomach and back muscles. But if it paralyzes chest muscles needed for breathing, it can be fatal.

Just as World War II ended, the most severe epidemics hit the nation. Most polio outbreaks began in the summer. Since children were most frequently affected, communities reacted with dread, often closing down public swimming pools and movie theaters. The epidemic peaked in North Carolina and the United States in 1952, when a record 57,628 cases were reported nationally. Some referred to the national state of panic as “polio hysteria.”

The following year, Dr. Jonas Salk and his associates developed an injectable polio vaccine made from inactivated virus. Schoolchildren by the thousands were vaccinated, reducing the incidence of polio by almost 90 percent within two years. Later, the Salk vaccine was replaced by the Sabin oral vaccine, which was easier and less expensive to administer.

Today polio has been eradicated in the United States, where the last case caused by “wild” virus was reported in 1979. Worldwide, while vaccination campaigns continue, hundreds of new cases are still reported each year.


Polio swept across North Carolina’s western Piedmont region in 1944, centering around Catawba County.


The March of Dimes, a fund-raising organization, was founded by FDR as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938.


Between 1949 and 1954, 65% of those who contracted polio were children.


North Carolina children wait in segregated lines for free Salk polio vaccinations.

Post-Polio Syndrome

During the 1940s and ’50s, polio patients were told their muscles would lose strength and flexibility if not used to full capacity. So they pushed their bodies, often beyond their limits. Many recovered to the point where they no longer needed crutches, braces, wheelchairs or iron lungs.

But 30 to 40 years later, the disease took a second toll on some survivors. These former patients began experiencing new pain and muscle weakness, in some cases forcing them back into wheelchairs. Doctors now believe these symptoms result from overworked nerve cells, muscles and joints.

Today, physical therapists encourage polio survivors to abandon the old “use it or lose it” philosophy in favor of a new approach: “Conserve it to preserve it.”

The Iron Lifesaver

Polio killed many victims by paralyzing the muscles needed for breathing. But many more survived, thanks to a device invented in 1929, the iron lung. The patient lay on a bed that could slide in and out of a large metal tank. At one end was a motor-powered “bellows” that pumped air in and out of the chamber. As air pressure increased in the chamber, it pushed down on the patient’s chest, forcing air out of the lungs. When the pressure decreased, the chest expanded, taking air into the lungs.

Some patients regained their ability to breathe on their own after a few weeks or months in an iron lung. Others remained dependent on the device for years.

The cost of an iron lung was high—about $1,500 during the 1930s, the average price of a home at that time. To help families afford respiratory treatment and medical equipment such as braces and crutches, North Carolina Blue Plans began offering additional coverage for polio.


The iron lung saved many thousands of lives during the polio epidemic.


An iron lung decorated with photos and cards. The mirror above the pillow let patients see visitors behind them.


Extra healthcare coverage helped families pay the cost of polio treatment and equipment.

The Miracle of Hickory

When a 1944 polio epidemic quickly filled hospitals in and around Catawba County, NC, the town of Hickory and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis went into high gear. Almost overnight, they turned a local camp into an emergency hospital. The first patients were admitted within 54 hours—a feat that became known as “the miracle of Hickory.”

Arriving patients remained in quarantine for two weeks, isolated even from parents in case they were still contagious. Afterward, they could have visitors only on Wednesdays and Sundays. But because of distance, lack of transportation or gasoline rationing, some families found it difficult to make the trip. Spending weeks or months away from their parents made the experience doubly traumatic for many young patients, who also had to cope with the boredom of passing the long hours between physical therapy sessions, unable to move.

“You just lay there in the bed. It wasn’t no TVs to look at, wasn’t no radios to listen to.”
—Samuel Jolley, Forest City, Rutherford County, 1996

There was no cure for polio, and theories about treatment differed. Some believed paralyzed limbs should be immobilized with plaster casts to keep them from growing crooked. But more adopted the “use it or lose it” philosophy. After the disease’s acute phase had passed, the treatment included intense, persistent exercise and heat therapy, both of which could be uncomfortable or painful.

Many patients slowly regained the use of leg muscles and began to walk again with the help of crutches, leg braces and even corsets to straighten their spines.


Admission staff examines a young woman at the Hickory Emergency Polio Hospital in 1944.


Polio victims often wore heavy braces to support weakened muscles.


Because of distance, lack of transportation or gasoline rationing, some families found it difficult to visit their loved ones in quarantine. Photo courtesy of the Norfolk Public Library.