The first recorded polio epidemic in Illinois occurred in 1916. By 1917, Quincy newspapers were writing about the "war" on polio and the "plague" of polio.
The Illinois State Board of Health held a conference on Feb. 19, 1917, in Quincy, one of 28 such conferences in Illinois. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss polio cases and share information with the public.
Poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, is a viral disease that attacks the nervous system of children and adults. The disease could be mild and temporary, or it could cripple, paralyze and kill.
Polio usually spreads from person to person. One reason for visiting nurse organizations beginning at the same time as the epidemic was to get into homes to care for children with polio and prevent its spread. Over the years, treatments were tried with varying degrees of success. Polio vaccine was not available until 1955.
The United States' most famous person who had polio was President Franklin Roosevelt. He contracted the disease in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent his presidency (1933 to 1945) in braces or a wheelchair and went to great lengths to hide his disability. In 1938, he helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as the March of Dimes. He tried a variety of therapies including hydrotherapy in the mineral springs and treatment pools in Warm Springs, Ga.
Roosevelt first went to Warm Springs in 1924. He bought a home there, known later as the Little White House, and died there in 1945.
In 1927 he founded a rehabilitation facility for polio patients, where they would live, work, and possibly regain their health together.
In 1940, Dr. Hildegarde Sinnock had a family of patients who lived just outside of Quincy on a farm on 48th Street. The father, Edgar, recounted a story of his mother needing the doctor. His father drove to 36th and State streets to the nearest telephone and called their physician, Dr. Sinnock's mother, Dr. Melinda Germann.
Edgar's letters to Dr. Sinnock say that her mother got out of her buggy and told Edgar and his sister, "Your mother wanted me and here I am."
On Aug. 13, 1940, Edgar and his wife brought their son Stanley to Blessing Hospital. They brought their daughter Iris the next day. Doctors diagnosed polio, and the children were quarantined. After about a week, Dr. Sinnock thought the children should be taken to Warm Springs as she had exhausted the locally available treatments available.
Though the rehabilitation center in Warm Springs was full, Dr. Sinnock contacted a friend who was the wife of one of Roosevelt's Cabinet members. She asked the president to intervene and get the children admitted. He did.
The family needed to decide quickly if they were going to Warm Springs. They agreed to go, and as polio improvement could be slow, they rented their farm, sold their equipment and livestock and left for Georgia in a small travel trailer, arriving in Warm Springs on Sept. 8, 1940.
In 1978, the children's father wrote a letter saying, "Now, Dr. Hildegarde, it was you who guided us medically, and followed up with a guidance for these many years. We owe all of this goodness we find here, becoming better as years go by, to you."
The family kept a diary in Warm Springs and referred to it when writing to Dr. Sinnock in the late 1970s. Dr. Sinnock advised them on their trip to Georgia to drive slowly, keep the children motionless and what to look for if their condition worsened. When they arrived, the children were added to the 100 patients lining the halls, in addition to the 84 patients in wards.
While their children were in treatment through 1940 and into 1941, Edgar and his wife helped out. Mabel worked in the kitchen, and Edgar helped build more patient rooms. Mabel did personal laundry for some patients every Saturday because the laundry service was slow, and some children did not have enough clothes to wait for their laundry to return.
Edgar would gather up small change, go to the dime store, and come back with toys for the children.
Roosevelt came to Warm Springs every few months for a two-week stay. After his treatments, he would visit the other patients.
One Saturday, Edgar was in his son's ward talking to the boys about getting the dime store toys. A boy from New York got a dollar each week from his uncle and had made a list of toys for Edgar to purchase. Roosevelt came into the ward to visit the boys and asked to see the list. He gave Edgar a dollar and said, "You pick out some toys you think I will like to pass my time." Edgar bought him a mechanical frog that could be wound up and then walk slowly. After pushing a red bottom on the frog's back, it would jump, causing great delight in the boys' ward.
Stanley was released in the spring of 1941, but Iris stayed nine more months. Dr. Sinnock advised the family not to return to the harsh climate of Illinois for several years. She suggested they live in Dr. Melinda Germann's winter home in Miami during the summer until they were able to find a house. Dr. Germann asked them to do yard and house maintenance, which led to a permanent job for Edgar with a landscaping business.
The family never returned to Illinois but opted for Florida's warmer climate. They bought 10 acres outside of Miami and built a house. Stanley eventually recovered the use of his limbs, but Iris used a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Both children graduated from the University of Miami and had successful careers. When the family came to Quincy for a visit, they always stopped to see Dr. Sinnock.
Arlis Dittmer is a retired medical librarian. During her years with Blessing Health System, she became interested in medical and nursing history--both topics frequently overlooked in history.
"47 Years Ago in IDPH History." Illinois Department of Public Health.
"86 Years Ago in IDPH History." Illinois Department of Public Health.
"Paralysis Clinic at Hospital on Wednesday." Quincy Daily Journal, April 10, 1923, p. 3.
"Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation." Georgia on my Mind.
Sinnock, Dr. Hildegarde. Letters File in BH0048, Blessing Health System Archive, Quincy, Ill.
"War on Polio Reaches Quincy." Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 2, 1917, p. 3.
"Will Discuss ‘Polio' Plague in City Hall." Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 8, 1917, p. 3.