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Great polio epidemic of 1953 — King George Hospital was “focal point of province’s polio attack”
Jun 19, 2009

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

A September 5, 1953, Free Press front-page article entitled, Small in Number, A ‘Fighting’ Few Stand Polio Siege, by Lyn Chandler, described the arduous duties of nurses and staff at King George Hospital, who were “centred in the focal point of the province’s polio attack ...

“From the laundry room to the office of the medical director, the work of men and women at the hospital has been a matter of ‘slugging it out’ — the consistent pressure of work piling up on them — work that has been a matter of life and death.”

For nurses, caring for iron lung patients was their most onerous task. “The nurse is constantly on her feet working over the patient in the huge machine ... suctioning mucous from the nose and mouth, watching the pressure of the respirator and the oxygen, checking vital signs.

“In some critical cases ... the nurse must work with her arms through small sponge rubber portholes in the side ... working in this position is an added physical strain.”

According to Chandler, medical staff from other city hospitals were pitching in at King George to relieve the burden, volunteering three to four hours a day. “Public health nurses, army, air force and navy medical personnel and nurses from Veterans Affairs are (also) among the reinforcements.”

Staff at the King George Hospital were also bolstered by St. John Ambulance nurses, who volunteered their time in the polio wards.

Normally, the hospital had three full-time doctors, four part-time doctors, three interns and four medical students, but to cope with the epidemic, the staff had been augmented by 10 extra doctors and 10 additional junior interns, according to Dr. J. Hildes, the director of medicine at King George Hospital.

By September, four female physiotherapists from England were added to the staff at King George Hospital “for an indefinite period.”

In October, a letter went out to the 762 inactive nurses in the Greater Winnipeg area, appealing for help in the care of the more than 200 polio patients in King George Hospital.

Within a year, the hospital’s paid staff would increase to 750, who were assisted by 600 volunteers.

Dr. M.S. Lougheed, Winnipeg’s medical health officer, announced on August 7 that the hard work of staff at King George Hospital was to be recognized through a series of bonuses approved by the Municipal Hospitals Commission. Alderman Peter Taraska, a member of the commission, said the bonuses were an “incentive.”

According to the bonus schedule, registered nurses in the polio wards were to receive an additional $12 a week, practical nurses $8 and other personnel — ward aides, medical orderlies and similar workers — $6.

Since it opened in 1914, King George Hospital, at the east end of Morley Avenue on property along the Red River, was at the forefront of communicable disease— smallpox, influenza, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, whooping cough, typhoid, cholera and polio — treatment in Winnipeg and Manitoba. King George was part of a city-built and operated hospital complex, which included the Temporary Hospital (opened in 1911), King Edward Memorial Hospital (opened in 1912) and Princess Elizabeth Hospital (opened in 1950 as a long-term care facility), that became known as the Winnipeg Municipal Hospitals. The remaining buildings were demolished in 1999 to make way for the new Riverview Health Centre.

“Winnipeg took the lead in Canada, and was among the first cities on the continent to take up the treatment of contagious diseases on a board basis,” according to a 1911 report when the first facility was opened on the Morley Avenue site.

There was obvious pride in possessing such facilities, as shown by an article in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune on August 3, 1943, about an invitation to the public to inspect the hospital grounds and listen to a band concert. Access inside the hospitals was denied for the valid reason that the highly-communicable diseases treated in the wards presented a health hazard.

The newspaper said King Edward Memorial Hospital had 140 beds for the free treatment of Winnipeggers suffering from tuberculosis, while King George Isolation Hospital had 200 beds for acute communicable diseases such as polio.

“The hospitals have coped with every epidemic since their inception, one of the first being the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and most recent being the 1941 infantile paralysis outbreak,” reported the newspaper.

To cope with the increasing number of “bulbar” polio cases, the aid of the Royal Canadian Air Force was enlisted by provincial authorities to transport iron lungs from Boston where the machines were built. In 1953, 14 iron lungs were flown to Winnipeg using an RCAF C-119 “Flying Boxcar” transportation aircraft based in Montreal. Once unloaded at Stevenson Field (now James Armstrong Richardson International Airport), the iron lungs were taken to King George Hospital.

There was no immediate need for the iron lungs, but health officials felt the machines “will provide a safeguard against any future development in the Manitoba polio epidemic.”

“As the sound of the pulse of the iron lung carries through the (King George) hospital halls,” wrote Chandler, “so does the sound of the physiotherapist's voice saying, ‘Bend your knee, sweetie,’ as she gently nurses the stiffened limb in a child back to health.”

Physiotherapy was used in infantile paralysis cases as a result of the influence of Australian, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. At the invitation of Dr. Bruce Chown, the superintendent of the Children’s Hospital, the nurse came to Winnipeg on August 23, 1941.

The Tribune reported Sister Kenny used her experience gained in isolated Australian hospitals, where medical services were not readily available, by trying “new methods in treating acute cases of infantile paralysis.” In 1929, Sister Kenny met a young girl named Maude crippled by infantile paralysis. Following 18 months of therapy by Kenny, the child was once again able to walk.

“Sister Kenny began her demonstrations before a group of medical men and nurses” at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.

The nurse’s treatment was contrary to the earlier practice of intentionally forcing patients to remain in a rigid condition by covering polio-affected limbs in splints and plaster. Sister Kenny defied the medical establishment by exercising the limbs of those suffering from polio paralysis. It soon became evident that her idea to use physiotherapy to treat polio patients was the correct procedure.

Before coming to Winnipeg, she demonstrated her work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. For 11 years, Minneapolis was Sister Kenny’s base in the U.S., during which time Kenny treatment centres were opened across the U.S. Among her patients was American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was stricken by crippling polio in 1921 at age 39 while vacationing in Canada.

During the 1953 polio epidemic, patients who had recovered from the acute stage of the disease were transferred from King George Hospital to  Princess Elizabeth Hospital to undergo physiotherapy. Soon the facilities at Princess Elizabeth were taxed to their limit and Deer Lodge Hospital’s physiotherapy ward was opened to recovering polio patients. Physiotherapy was also available at St. Boniface Hospital and the Children’s Hospital. 

By September, plans were announced for a post-polio physiotherapy centre at Deer Lodge to be administered by the Crippled Children’s Society and financed by the March of Dimes. Six physiotherapists, two occupational therapists and six physical training instructors staffed the new centre that was open six days a week from 5 to 8 p.m. “All expenses including treatment and the transportation to and from the centre will by covered by March of Dimes funds when patients require financial assistance,” announced the September 11 Free Press.

The March of Dimes was first established in 1938 in the U.S. as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis by President Roosevelt. The name March of Dimes fund-raising campaign, which got underway each January, was coined by entertainer Eddie Cantor as a play on the popular newsreel of the day called The March of Time. By asking people to send in small change to fund the fight to find a cure for polio, it proved to be one of the most successful fund-raising campaigns in history. Millions of dollars were raised as children emptied their piggy banks to send in whatever change they could spare. The old saying, “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves,” proved to be very  true.

A Winnipeg campaign for the March of Dimes used a variation of the children’s piggy bank. Miniature iron lung banks were placed in banks, stores and office buildings. Above the iron-lung banks appeared the words, “Help them work and play again.”

At the start of 1953, the March of Dimes committee of the Crippled Children’s Society of Manitoba announced there would be no door-to-door canvassing for contributions, as following the 1952 epidemic, “there is hardly any need to point out the ravages of polio,” according to committee chairman Karl G. Slocomb.

He said the 1952 epidemic “is still fresh in everybody’s mind — over 20 patients in Winnipeg hospitals are still in iron lungs — and many more are still undergoing physiotherapy and rehabilitation.”

At the time, voluntary March of Dimes donations from children were coming in “from all over the city and ... from widespread points all over the province.”

A new aspect of the 1953 epidemic was that polio, normally associated with children, was affecting an increasing number of adults. People over 20 years old represented 30 per cent of the polio cases in 1953, but just five per cent in 1928.

Speaking at a Canadian Medical Association conference in Alberta, Dr. Bruce Chown, of the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, said “instances of two, three or four cases of polio in the same  family” in 1952 and 1953 also indicated a new trend in Manitoba (Canadian Press, September 20).

One afflicted Winnipeg adult was 27-year-old Mike Gennick, whose co-workers contributed to one of the inspirational “good news” stories of the epidemic.

Gennick, who had lived on Melrose Avenue in Transcona, was diagnosed with polio on July 26 and taken to the King George isolation ward where he was placed in an iron lung.

According to the October 9, 1953, Free Press: “At the time of the polio attack the Gennick family were deep in plans for the building of a new home ... The house was barely begun when Mike was whisked to hospital. It looked as though the home they had dreamed of would not be completed until some distant date.” 

His co-workers at the Canadian National Railway roundhouse in Transcona “passed the hat around” and collected $156, but then decided upon another way to help — complete the Gennick  family’s dream home. 

“They poured the foundation, helped with the wiring, attending to the hundred and one things Mike hadn’t had time to ...

“Lying in his iron lung at King George Hospital, Mike Gennick gets a detailed report on the progress his friends are making. His wife says the way things are going she will be able to move into the home (with their three-year-old daughter) by October 26.

A front-page photo in the newspaper used the caption, “A Home for Mike.”

The remarkable aspect of the 1953 epidemic is how the community pulled together in order to raise funds for polio prevention and treatment and easing the plight of those hospitalized.

Young children across Winnipeg opened up lemonade stands, raising $2,800 “to help fight the polio scourge.”

Newspapers provided lists of children such as Carolyn Hamell, 11, Joan Caldwell, 12, and Judith Wright, 12, who set up a lemonade stand at the corner of Stafford Street and Corydon Avenue, collecting $6.50. Mary Anne Rempel, 10, in Fort Garry sold vegetables, homemade strawberry jam, eggs and flowers, raising $5.

Two unnamed children playing their violins at a downtown street corner took in $374.

“Pennies, dimes and nickels are still pouring in to the polio fund from sales and canvasses conducted by city children,” announced the Free Press on August 25.

The Society for Crippled Children indicated some of the money raised by youngsters would be used to purchase electric fans for the polio wards, as well as provide for the “comfort” of polio patients. King George staff announced funds would be used to buy reading racks and radios for iron lung patients.

“I think it’s an excellent thing.’ said Winnipeg Mayor Garnet Coulter. “Not only is the cause a worthy one, but the movement is good for children collecting the money, for it is teaching them responsibility for those less fortunate than themselves.”

The 71,780 members of the Manitoba Junior Red Cross  raised money to buy an iron lung for the Children’s Hospital valued at $1,025, and then purchased a second iron lung through its Crippled Children’s fund.

Potato growers from Southern Manitoba donated 100,000 pounds of their product, which was packaged at no cost in 10-pound bags by the Winnipeg Gardeners Co-operative Ltd., Ross Avenue and Ellen Street, and the Manitoba Vegetable and Potato Growers Co-operative on Darby Street. Each bag was priced at 33-cents and labeled, “Manitoba Potatoes for Polio Fund.” The money raised was slated for the purchase of an iron lung.

The West Kildonan Kiwanis Club instituted “operation polio,” during which each member became “a health inspector for the day,” distributing pamphlets outlining sanitary and health measures against polio, as well as surveying sources of polluted water and accumulated garbage.

Danny Gutkin, organizer of the campaign, said the Kiwanis would be “supplying needed help to the (West Kildonan) health inspector, Gordon Kemp.”

The Prince Edward Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion sponsored an Iron Lung Show on October 5, featuring Winnipeg's best musical talent, with the goal of raising funds to purchase iron lungs for the King George Hospital.

A charity concert and dance in MacGregor raised $213 towards the purchase of an iron lung, and similar events were held in Gunton and Portage la Prairie as well as at the UNF Hall on North Main Street in Winnipeg.

“A large turn-out at the Roseland Dance-Dine spelled success for a benefit dance ... to raise money for the polio fund,” reported the Free Press on November 10, 1953. “The Winnipeg Musicians’ Association loaned its support to the fund, and Harry Smith, proprietor of the Roseland, gave free use of the hall.”

Three popular big bands took part in the benefit — Monty Green’s, Johnny Bering’s and the Red River Valley Boys. Also appearing was the comedy team of Len Andree and Bill Walker, cowboy singer Buddy Reynolds, impressionist Herb Britton and the Fort Garry Four, a barbershop quartet. 

In Lyleton, Manitoba, a whist drive, which included an auction of home-cooking and sewn items, raised $142.50 for the March of Dimes.

While most Manitobans used whatever resources were available to them to fight polio, the less scrupulous saw the epidemic as an opportunity to exploit the anxiety of parents in order to make a quick buck. Vials of the alleged polio serum gamma globulin were selling on the street for $25 a dose, according to the Free Press. 

Local health officials warned the public about the unauthorized sale of the serum in vials bearing the “Connaught Laboratories” label.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that someone who was not a doctor was offering black-market gamma globulin at $10 a cubic centimetre — health-care officials considered this to be adulterated serum or a fluid resembling the serum or possibly just water.

Connaught gamma globulin was actually available free to persons who qualified under rules specified by the federal government which supplied the serum across Canada. The only serums available commercially were from other government-sanctioned laboratories.

“No one outside the department of public health ... can be legally in possession of serum vials labeled ‘Connaught,’” according to a warning issued to the media.

If the vials were submitted by anyone else, “the public are fools if they touch it,” said one government official.

One  person was said to have offered $30 for a small dose of the serum to save his polio-stricken daughter. What the father did not know was that gamma globulin was regarded as a preventative rather than a cure, and its powers to prevent the disease were limited to the point of being virtually ineffective. Recognizing the serum would be useless due to the daughter already having polio, health officials rejected the father’s attempt to purchase gamma gobulin from the government supply.

Dr. William Hammond, the American developer of the serum, warned that its protection against polio was temporary and its effectiveness was uncertain due to the need to include antibodies against all three types of polio virus to induce total immunity.

Gamma globulin, also called immunoglobulin, is a class of blood plasma proteins, most notably including the antibodies that help fight infections and disease — Hammond’s serum was pooled plasma with “neutralized” anti-bodies to the polio virus. Gamma globulin immunization had been proven effective against measles, but its ability to combat polio was still not scientifically verified at the time of the 1953 outbreak.

But as panic spread, people were willing  to take chances with any so-called “miracle cure” — all of which deserved to be regarded as “bogus.”

The fear of polio was so rampant that even funeral directors called for closed funerals for those who died of polio. 

“We don’t worry about germs escaping from the body,” one funeral director told the Free Press (August7, 1953). “It’s just that people who might be carriers, perhaps some immediate member of the victim’s family, would attend the funeral and thereby increase the chance of the disease being spread.”

The Kiwanis Club of St. Boniface announced the E.J. Casey Shows, a carnival they were sponsoring, scheduled for St. Boniface from September 1 to 7, had been cancelled due to the polio epidemic, although tickets were printed and advertising said the show was “ready to go.”

On August 20, the Free Press reported a two-week delay from August 31 to September 14 in opening schools on the recommendation of the provincial Advisory Committee on Polio.

Well after the epidemic had peaked in most of Manitoba, Bowsman closed its school toward the end of October, “owing to the high incidence of polio in the district.” 

(Next week: part 3)