All Too Vivid Memory of a Polio Epidemic

I am writing in response to the article by Anne Roark (Feb. 32), on the history of epidemics.

I lived in South Milwaukee and during the summer of 1948 the world seemed to close in on children. The beaches at Lake Michigan were closed, the movie houses closed, children were not to ride on the buses, they were not to go to public areas such as parks and playgrounds, I was not allowed to go to the grocery store, and the summer dragged on as the opening of school was delayed until early October.

Then it was announced school was going to begin. We had to report during set times and stand in lines to get our temperatures taken by the school nurse. Any elevation of temperature meant you could not attend school until it was normal.

The cases of polio slowed, but Milwaukee was still reporting an occasional case. South Milwaukee had no reported case all summer and none until mid-October, my father. They took him out of the apartment house on a stretcher before I left for school, but that ended up not to matter for word got around school fast that my father was in the hospital. No one talked to me and I sat alone during assembly that day. After assembly the health nurse called me in to tell me my father had been diagnosed as having polio.


I was sent home in a state of shock. I was still a few months away from 13, but the normal early teen-age trauma was intensified. I went to the band room to pick up by oboe but was told it was a school instrument and they had already locked it up--for health reasons.

My mother and I were beginning to face the hysteria that Roark refers to in her article. The milkman left a note saying he could not take our empty milk bottles. The city Health Department notified us our trash was to be kept separate from the rest of the apartment buildings as it would require a special pickup. My sister, 3 years old, and I were quarantined--complete with signs on the door--in a three-room apartment. No one could come and go but adults. To my teen-age mind the point that it was an adult who had polio not a child had no impression on the health nurse who placed the sign on the door while my mother was visiting my father, now in an iron lung.

That happened within 24 hours. The next week is one I will never forget. My father died. I was not allowed at the funeral for I was in quarantine. The Health Department sent someone to pick me up and take me to the funeral home where they marched me in and opened the casket. Then, they nodded to the undertaker who closed it and escorted me home, back to three rooms growing smaller hour by hour.

The women from church brought over food for the funeral. The food was left at the front door of the apartment and most were marked to tell us that we did not have to worry about returning the containers. It was several weeks before our trash was taken with the rest or before the milkman took the empty bottles. I can only say junior high school and church were never the same the rest of the time we lived in South Milwaukee.

The following summer we moved back to Illinois to be near my mother’s relatives and I felt moving removed the feeling that everyone felt I was contagious.

I have an all too vivid memory of what ignorant ostracism over a disease can be like. The article by Roark, and others like it, can never state the combination of pity and contempt I felt for the human race when I was walled off and not given the opportunity to even grieve the death of my father.

As an adult, I have learned to accept what happened as ignorance. Now, I grieve when others experience this kind of ethnocentric or egocentric ignorance, whether it is because of disease, manner of dress, or life style.