“Once you’ve spent two years trying to wiggle one toe, everything is in proportion.” -Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair during his term in office as president of the United States. His disability resulted from an illness acquired while vacationing on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada in 1921. He was thirty-nine. What was this illness that not only plagued Roosevelt but many Canadians such as Neil Young, Paul Martin Sr., Paul Martin Jr. and countless others? The answer can take on many forms from infantile paralysis to the Heine-Medin disease. They all mean one thing: poliomyelitis. Poliomyelitis or polio is an illness caused by the poliovirus that affects the nervous system, degrading the neurons of the muscle, often resulting in temporary or permanent paralysis of the affected limb.
Roosevelt contracted polio while vacationing in New Brunswick but what about the New Brunswick men, women and children that contracted polio? Where they did they obtain treatment? What services were put in place to help those polio patients and what role did physicians, physiotherapists and nurses? This is the story of poliomyelitis in New Brunswick.
Mainly focusing on the community that was built and grew around the polio clinic through images presently residing at the New Brunswick Provincial Archives in Fredericton, N.B., this site connects the people working at the Polio Clinic with patients and the care they received. Polio, unlike tuberculosis which was also prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, was a disease that showed outward symptoms and the effects of the illness remained for years and often a lifetime after the virus had left the afflicted. It was a disease that shaped a society, being especially prevalent in sanitary homes, unlike many other illnesses and being seasonally prevalent as well though the reason and seasonality of the disease has yet to be explored.
Header photograph courtesy of: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Gillian Liebenberg Polio Years 1941-1954 collection: P384-58.