Polio epidemic in 1950s also had anti-vaxxers, Bode says

Marilyn Bode of Perry wrote the book, "My Mean Mom," to describe her struggle to survive polio in the 1950s. Photo courtesy Nu Alpha Gamma Chapter

Marilyn Bode of Perry wrote the book, “My Mean Mom,” to describe her struggle to survive polio in the 1950s.

An epidemic was sweeping the nation. People were filling the hospitals. Scientists were working frantically on a vaccine that would keep people safe.

Sound familiar? Well this was in the 1950s, and the virus in question was polio. At last week’s meeting of the Nu Alpha Gamma chapter, Marilyn Bode shared her story of her fight against the disease that paralyzed and killed many Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

In 1952 as a second grader, Marilyn woke with a stiff neck. A trip to the doctor sent her to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, where she was diagnosed with polio. She was put in their contagious ward in the basement, which was crammed full with beds. No visitors were allowed, so her parents would knock on the windows and wave to her.

When Marilyn was declared no longer contagious, she was moved to an upper room in Blank, and her physical therapy began. Her father was busy with the harvest, so her mother moved to Des Moines, lived with an aunt and volunteered at the hospital, helping with the physical therapy, which consisted of Marilyn being soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and then doing exercises designed to limber her limbs, particularly her left arm, which she could not move.

Soon she was well enough to go home, where the physical therapy continued despite many obstacles.

Marilyn’s mom had decided that her daughter wouldn’t be crippled if she didn’t have to be, and she didn’t tolerate any whining, crying or complaining from her daughter.  It worked. By the end of December, Marilyn was back in school four days a week, and it was not too long before she was in school full time.

Marilyn was fortunate to survive, but her neighbor Kenneth did not. He had a different type of polio, which meant he had to use an iron lung.

Citing the comparison with today’s pandemic, Marilyn reported that vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were found to be effective, and today the majority of children are vaccinated. Since 1979 there have been no cases of childhood polio in the U.S. Today there are only two cases in the world, and on Nov. 8 the house to house campaign to inoculate children in Afghanistan was resumed.

Just as today, there were naysayers back then. Legendary broadcaster Walter Winchell warned of a “killer” vaccine for polio. Even though the vaccine had been tested on 7,500 schoolchildren, Winchell wrongly claimed that authorities were stockpiling “little white coffins” to hold the vaccine’s victims. That week, 150,000 children were yanked out of the vaccine trials as a result of Winchell’s false claims.

Marilyn credits the fact that she has been able to lead a happy and productive life to her “mean mom” who made her do those hated exercises. Her journey to recovery led her to write and share with her family “My Mean Mom,” the story of her mother’s dedication to her recovery.

Sue Leslie is the secretary of the Nu Alpha Gamma Chapter.


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