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A History of the Polio Epidemic in Tulsa

Worth Gross, M.D.

Transcript June 24, 2005


This is an abbreviated history of the occurrence of acute poliomyelitis in Tulsa County. There will be inaccuracies because of poor records and my faulty memory.


The last real epidemic of anterior poliomyelitis occurred in 1952, when 159 acute cases were recorded. Earlier epidemics in the area were in 1907 and in 1916.


The acute phase tapered off in 1953 and there was a steady decline of infections in 1956, 57 and 58. The last case of acute infection of polio was in 1979.


Like everyplace else, Tulsa was woefully unprepared.


There being no children’s hospital in Tulsa in 1952, most of the acute cases were admitted to a building just west of Hillcrest Hospital which had been used as the old Hillcrest “lying-in” hospital. It was made into a 130 bed polio center. There was talk of building a children’s hospital in the Tulsa area but it became unnecessary after the control of the infection by vaccine. The Polio epidemic was devastating to Oklahoma. The University Hospital in Oklahoma City was swamped with cases and could not provide assistance to the northeast Oklahoma situation.


The Polio building was packed with iron lungs, hot pack machines and all the other special paraphernalia for the treatment of the acute disease. Because of the critical bed shortage, adults were sometimes mixed with the children. Patient’s beds were stacked in hallways and other available vacant areas. Treatment of the disease was not standardized until late in the epidemic. Sister Kenny, an Australian nurse, developed a treatment of hot packs applied to the extremities and to the chest to alleviate the pain of the acute infections Dr. Ian McKenzie, an orthopedic surgeon, was in charge of most of the therapeutic arrangement. Unfortunately, Dr. McKenzie was killed in an automobile accident about the middle of 1952. A great deal of controversy existed at that time involving the treatment of these acute cases. The Tulsa public was terrified. Swimming pools and especially wading pools were closed throughout the city. Strict quarantine for acute cases was a necessity. The Junior League of Tulsa developed a convalescent hospital into a new addition of the Children’s Medical Center in September of 1953. It was located at 4900 South Lewis as a convalescent hospital. Victims of poliomyelitis were predominant, but other children’s diseases such as Cerebral Palsy were included. Of the medical problems, the most fearsome was respiratory paralysis. Tulsa pediatricians spent countless hours in alleviating these distressing situations. Pediatricians included: William A. Betts, Jr., M.D., Irvin B. Braverman, M.D., Mark H. Donovan, M.D., Robert K. Endres, M.D., Leonard L. Kishner, M.D., George R. Krietmeyer, M.D., Loren V. Miller, M.D., Herschel J. Rubin, M.D., George R. Russell, M.D., Walter F. Sethney, M.D., Hugh B. Spencer, M.D., David J. Underwood, M.D., James E. White, M.D., Ray M. Wadsworth, M.D. I regret my poor memory for names of those in the wonderful nursing service and physical therapy department. The treatment carried out at the Children’s Medical Center and their efforts were absolutely necessary. There were so many volunteers and otherwise well-trained personnel, but Miss Dorothy Fugit from Georgia was most praiseworthy of the prime supporters of the operators of that clinic.


The March of Dimes program supposedly named by Eddie Cantor, a noted actor, provided strong financial support for research and treatment of the polio victims. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a Polio victim, was a great force in the development and treatment of victims of the disease and most particularly the development of a successful vaccine.


With unbelievable speed, Drs. Albert Sabin, Jonas Salk and Julius Youngner, with their devoted associates, developed different types of vaccines, that eventually controlled the disease. With the exception of some of the third world countries, the world’s children are now essentially free from the plague of Polio.


Interestingly enough at the time of this writing, seven new cases of Polio have been reported in Yemen. International organizations through the UN are still hard at work to eliminate Polio, like smallpox, for all people for all time.


The Centers for Disease Control finally developed a killed virus formulation from the vaccine based on Jonas Salk and Julius Youngner’s work completed on the first of January, 2000. The paralytic residuals and deformities included the unstable joints and weakened musculatures that remained for years. Such dysfunction resulted in prolonged stabilizing procedures and utilization of residual musculature function by muscle and tendon transfers and joint stabilizations. Intricate surgical procedures were the norm for the orthopedic surgical staff. The Orthopedic surgeons involved primarily in the treatment at this time were Wade Sisler, M. D., Al Bungardt, M.D., Myra Peters, M.D. and Worth Gross, M.D.


The Tulsa Limb and Brace Company at Eighth and Elgin supervised by a superb Orthotist, Don Smith and his associates provided much of the necessary supporting devices in the long term treatment of these patients. Don Smith constructed the complex Milwaukee brace necessary for the treatment of Scoliosis as a result of spinal paralysis. He was added by Dr. Hugh Sims, an orthodontist supervised the fitting at the neck and jaw to prevent serious involvement with the mandible. Orthopedic surgeons trained specifically in the multitude of skeletal involvements attended for years the late crippled children’s clinic throughout the area. Long term rehabilitation was supervised by the Crippled Children’s Society of Oklahoma. There are still remnants of the paralytic episodes, but there have been no further acute cases in Tulsa since 1979. It is now 50 years since the final development of the vaccine.


I regret and apologize for the inadvertent omission of the names of the many physicians, therapists and volunteers in this monumental episode in Tulsa County Medicine.

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