When Polio Triggered Fear Among Parents in the Post-World War II Era

In the 1950s, the polio virus terrified American families. Parents tried “social distancing” – effectively and out of fear. Polio was not part of the life they signed up for. In the otherwise comfortable era of World War II, the spread of polio showed that middle-class families could not build worlds entirely under their control.

For the Texan town of San Angelo on the Concho River, halfway between Lubbock and San Antonio, the spring of 1949 brought disease, uncertainty and above all fear. A series of deaths and a wave of patients unable to breathe have resulted in the air transportation of medical equipment with C-47 military carriers.

Cities practice extreme social distancing

Fearing the spread of the contagious virus, the city closed swimming pools, swimming pools, cinemas, schools and churches, forcing priests to contact their congregations on local radio. Some motorists who had to stop to refuel in San Angelo did not fill their deflated tires for fear of bringing home air containing the infectious virus. And one of the city’s top doctors diagnosed his patients on the basis of his “clinical impression” rather than taking the risk of being infected when administered the appropriate diagnostic test, writes Gareth Williams, Paralyzed by fear: the story of polio. The scene was repeated across the country, especially on the east coast and the Midwest.

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