Throwback Thursday: Fighting the 1950s polio epidemic
By Kristy Bleizeffer Dec 17, 2020
As Wyoming administers its first shipments of COVID-19 vaccine, we're throwing back this week to remember another pandemic infecting thousands of Americans: Polio.
In 1953, the United States was still fighting a devastating outbreak of polio – a viral disease spread person to person. The 1952 polio epidemic was considered the worst outbreak in our country’s history.
Iron Lungs, like this one at Memorial Hospital dated to the early 1950s, were negative-pressure ventilators that enabled paralyzed polio patients to breathe. The air-tight chamber encased the thoracic cavity and air pumps controlled the pressure in the tank. When outside pressure dropped below the pressure in the lungs, the lungs expanded and pulled air in through the patient’s nose and mouth. When the outside pressure rose above the pressure in the lungs, the opposite occurred.
In 1941, we had an active branch of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, chaired by William J. Stone, and a polio ward at Memorial Hospital. In 1953, about 30 Memorial Hospital nurses met every Tuesday in May for an “institute in polio nursing,” according to a May 21, 1953, Casper Star-Tribune article.
Since 1954, when the polio vaccine was first trialed and then widely administered, polio has been almost eradicated in Western countries and greatly reduced in the developing world. While Iron Lungs once filled hospital wards, they largely disappeared along with the virus. Now, positive-pressure ventilators (those that blow air into the patient’s airway) are more commonly used for patients that cannot breath on their own.
Throwback Thursday is a series celebrating Wyoming Medical Center’s long and rich history in Natrona County. Special thanks to the Casper College Western History Center which archives the vast Wyoming Medical Center collection of newspaper articles, photographs and other memorabilia.