1950s polio epidemic had costs beyond disabling injuries for Minnesotans

Minnesota came off of a record number of polio cases in 1952. Our state was second in the nation behind […]

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Minnesota came off of a record number of polio cases in 1952. Our state was second in the nation behind Texas for polio patients. Hospital wards were filled with patients on respirators. According to the National Institute of Health, there were 20,000 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States that year. 

If 1952 was a record-breaking year, 1953 was the start of a long road to recovery. Recovery was not just for those dealing with the disabling effects of polio. Hospitals and volunteer groups struggled to regain footing and finances. 

Medical facilities were slowly returning to normal. A January 8, 1953 Minneapolis Tribune article described how visiting nurses at Minneapolis General Hospital were starting to  return to their homes and jobs. Nurses were shown saying their goodbyes and packing their suitcases. Many had missed the Christmas holidays with their families. 

Minneapolis hospitals had 180 visiting nurses come in from around the nation. Their help was needed when polio resurged in fall 1952. 

“Nurses came from Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and 12 other states to help out during the peak of the outbreak,” the article stated. More than 60 cities were represented in the visitors’ ranks. 

Other nurses came from the Twin Cities area’s ranks of county and public health nurses, blood centers and other facilities. 

Nurses worked at Minneapolis General, Mount Sinai, Sister Kenny, Swedish and Sheltering Arms hospitals. The plus-$100,000 cost for extra nursing help was covered by donations from the Hennepin County chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes fundraising drives. 

Local chapters of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis struggled under the weight on so many needs. Groups statewide had busied themselves with education about helping polio patients. They met with county public health nurses to learn about patient treatment. 

They raised money to help provide care. A look at newspapers statewide showed basketball tournaments, luncheons, style shows, auctions and other fundraisers held to raise money. 

The high costs of care overwhelmed many volunteer groups. The January 15, 1953 Winona Republican-Herald included an article headlined, “Winona Chapter Owes $6,600 on 1952 Polio Bill.” Providing care had put the Winona County Chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in debt. 

The southeastern Minnesota group raised almost $9,000 in the 1952 March of Dimes campaign. That money was quickly spent. Fae Griffith, chair of the Winona group, said four of five polio patients in Minnesota needed help from the March of Dimes. 

“The average daily cost for care and treatment of polio patients in Minnesota has risen from $13 in 1948 to $20 today,” the article stated. 

Some respirator patients run up daily costs of $40 and more,” she told the newspaper. 
Soon the availability of polio vaccines would quell the disease and ease the burden on so many. 

Minneapolis General became part of what is now Hennepin County Medical Center. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis is now known simply as the March of Dimes. 
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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