York County polio epidemic peaked in Sept. 1941: ‘The city was virtually locked in’

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The York, Pa., Boys Club Pool near Farquhar Park appears in this Gazette and Daily image from artist Cliff Satterthwaite in August 1958. Seventeen years earlier, a polio epidemic closed the pool and many other gathering spots throughout York County. Also of interest: Polio survivor and York, Pa.’s own Vic Wertz: ‘The man who hit the ball Mays caught’ and Spanish flu of 1918 no three-day fever. Try 365-day worldwide plague and Pre-World War II Thanksgiving holds lessons for York countians today.

Polio survivors in York County serve as living reminders of that disease that caused dread with the annual onset of warm weather 60 to 70 years ago.
The York Daily Record/Sunday News recently published a piece on such survivors.
Those folks are rare, generally born before Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine against polio in 1955.
The York Daily Record report quoted a family doctor whose 2,500 patients include one survivor… .


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Windsor Township’s John Breach works out in 2009 to maintain his strength and to help compensate for physical problems caused by polio. (York Daily Record/Sunday News photo)
The physician said sufferers risk developing post-polio syndrome, which is a reactivation of the disease and usually affects the survivor’s previously unaffected limbs or muscles
The most-reported polio season from York County’s past came in 1941. It’s best-known because former York Daily Record columnist Jim Hubley wrote about it on occasion and researchers probing the buildup to World War II see that the county reeled from the impact of the disease before Pearl Harbor.
Here is an example of Hubley’s take on the end of the 1941 polio season, excerpted from a York Daily Record column (9/21/06):

Who can ever forget what occurred in York 65 years ago, peaking in September. The city was virtually locked in, with strict regulations for travel because of the dread disease of polio.
Theaters closed, churches banned children, travel was limited. The threat of paralysis hung above the head of each citizen, with particular emphasis over children.
Lives were lost and many, too many, who were stricken with paralysis spent the rest of their lives handicapped. Many suffered the loss or impairment of their ability to move. There were those forced to live out the rest of their lives in bed, unable to move without the aid and care of others.
It had to be one of the saddest periods in York history, involving hundreds. Today there remain those who have not forgotten that summer of 1941. They still wear the scars of the effects from the disease. Others still are unable to forget how fortunate they were to escape the disease and remain active to this day, senior citizens who shudder when the word paralysis is mentioned.
Until those “melancholy” days in September arrived in 1941, York had a rough year. Men, old, young and in between, were concerned about being drafted for military service. The Army was on their minds, then came the polio. That situation eased finally in September.
Then, on the last day of September, another incident occurred which found York experiencing something which had not happened since the Confederates were in York in 1863, “military invasion” — by Americans.
Suddenly that morning, the vanguard of the 26th Yankee Division, with nearly 10,000 men and 1,200 Army trucks, entered York from the west, began marching down Market Street and continued to the end of the town at the east.
The division had been in the South on maneuvers. They required three days to pass through York, and soon learned much about York citizens.
Food, gifts, etc. from generous Yorkers greeted the soldiers. Friendships developed, and marriages, which came later, as did death for many soldiers after Pearl Harbor Day, also 65 years ago.
It seemed the ideal ending to the 1941 September in York, “Melancholy days, saddest of the year.”

Polio makes it to the news pages today for another reason. York Rotary, as part of Rotary International efforts worldwide, has raised $365,000 to help eradicate polio since 1988.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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