Children and Disease: The Cultural Impact of Polio in Twentieth-Century America

Quadrant: Health and Society

This social history of the polio epidemic during the first half of the twentieth century draws on the history of medicine, childhood history, disability studies, the history of education, as well as medical ethics to argue two key points. First, agency remains largely absent in the history of medicine in general and polio in particular. Disability history frames polios’ actions at the onset of the illness, during hospitalization and rehabilitation, when they returned to their homes, and as they resumed their schooling. The social construction of disability lends itself to a more dynamic narrative of polios’ lives than the traditional medical model. Second, the role of the American public schools in the testing and mass immunization stages of the campaign to eradicate poliomyelitis during the 1950s remains woefully unanalyzed. Histories of the polio epidemic point to mass panic to explain the willingness of millions of parents nationwide to submit their children to medical experiments of a relatively untried serum. This study expands that interpretation to include a consensus-building model, pointing to both the creation of a medical infrastructure and culture in school settings. Both informal and formal education set the stage for trust in medical science. The public schools operated as an extension of the research laboratory through its facilities, staff, and ready access to children, making possible the largest medical experiment involving human subjects in history.

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