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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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POLIO. Few diseases frightened parents more in the early part of the 20th century than did polio. Polio struck in the warm summer months, sweeping through towns in epidemics every few years. Though most people recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many polio survivors, disabled for life, were a visible, painful reminder of the enormous toll this disease took on young lives. (1)

Polio is a highly infectious illness that spreads through contact between people, by nasal and oral secretions, and by contact with contaminated feces. Poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, multiplying along the way to the digestive tract, where it further multiplies. (2)

Polio has no cure, so prevention is the most effective means to combat it. Certain drugs and therapies can offer supportive care for patients to counter some of the effects of muscle involvement. Patients who progress to paralysis of muscles involved in breathing receive artificial breathing support, which may be discontinued if the patient regains use of the affected muscles. (3)

In the U.S., the last case of naturally occurring polio happened in 1979. Today, despite a concerted global eradication campaign, poliovirus continues to affect children and adults in Afghanistan, Pakistan and some African countries. (4)

The worst epidemic of polio in Dubuque's history hit the city during the summer of 1918. Before the end of the month, seventy-seven children had been stricken and nine died. Mayor James SAUL requested assistance from the State Board of Health which sent Dr. Edward C. Rosenow, a noted physician from the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Rosenow established a clinic and administered a serum to children who seemed to be the only ones affected. His work and presence in the city received wide praise. (5)

As cases, however, continued to be reported playgrounds, theaters, and Sunday schools were closed. Archbiship James J. KEANE sent letters to the pastors of Catholic churches telling parents with children under the age of 16 to keep them home. Teams of people working for the health department toured the city inspecting garbage cans and screens on windows. Flies were considered one of the principal carriers of the disease. In a short time, a quarantine was forced on the city. Parents were told not to try to take their children out of the city for fear of spreading the disease; police were stationed at train stations to see that orders were carried out. Finally by August 3, 1918 ten days had passed without another case being discovered. The quarantine on the city was lifted. (6)

Polio threatened Dubuque residents in the mid-20th century. An epidemic of poliomyelitis delayed the opening of school for one month in 1943. In 1954, Iowa reported 1,445 cases. (7) The CATHOLIC MOTHERS' STUDY CLUBS took the lead locally in combating the disease. The Hot Pack method of caring for polio patients was learned. Study Clubs helped maintain the first polio quarantine in Dubuque by keeping their own children at home during the polio season. Catholic Mothers were among the first in Dubuque to have their children vaccinated with the Salk vaccine. By 1957 the number of cases in Iowa had dropped to 78. (8) Developed in the 1950s, polio vaccines have been credited with reducing the global number of polio cases per year from many hundreds of thousands to around a thousand. Vaccination efforts led by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Rotary International could result in global eradication of the disease.

On March 24, 1962 a polio clinic held at WASHINGTON JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL drew 6,922 residents for free polio immunization shots. Sponsored by the Dubuque County Medical Society, March of Dines, and the Dubuque Federation of Labor, the clinic provided the first shot to 33% of those attending. The second and third and a booster were to be provided on April 21 and November 24. Three shots completed the protection, but it was necessary to receive a booster shot every three years. (9)

Photo courtesy: Paul Hemmer and https://www.facebook.com/pg/ykyguidiiyr/photos/

In February 1963 the first in a series of three Sabin oral polio vaccine clinics were held at Dubuque, Dyersville, and Cascade. The vaccine, the only permanent type available, was distributed at six week intervals at a cost of twenty-five cents per person or free if the person could not afford the charge. (10) In what was described as an "extremely smooth operation," an estimated 54,200 children and adults received the vaccine at the first clinic in Dubuque. People who had registered walked through the line and received a pink-colored sugar cube containing the vaccine. Young children too young for the sugar cubes received the tasteless vaccine through an eye dropper. (11)



1. "The History of Vaccines," An Education Resource by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Online: http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-polio-poliomyelitis

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "Polio," Mayo Clinic, Online: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/polio/basics/definition/CON-20030957

5. Thompson, Dave. "City's Worst Polio Siege Hit in 1918," Telegraph Herald, February 22, 1963, p. 1

6. Ibid.

7. Hogstrom, Erik. "Germ Warfare," Telegraph Herald, November 10, 2008, p. 40

8. Ibid.

9. "Polio Clinic Gives 6,922 Shots Here," Telegraph Herald, March 25, 1962, p. 1

10. "1st of 3 Oral Polio Vaccine Clinics to be Held Saturday," Telegraph Herald, February 22, 1963, p. 1

11. " 'Pill' Taken by 54,200 in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, February 24, 1963, p. 1