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Readers share their stories about polio in the 1950s

And here’s a "wearin’ of the green" to all who are Irish or those who wish they were, at least for today — St. Patrick’s Day.

Since today’s column touches on polio through the eyes of several of my readers, I just remembered this very day in 1950. I was still at Sister Kenny Hospital in Minneapolis when I received from my cousin, Ivah Turner, newlywed to Arthur Leemis, a bright-green Irish necktie. I still have it, but it just doesn’t seem to wear well anymore. Very wide at the bottom and short.

Speaking of "short," some patients were in the hospital for a short time and others forever, or so it seemed.

A few months ago, Frank Siebenaler of Lake City told me in a letter that their family was living in Winona in 1949. His 4-year-old sister came down with polio and spent six months in the Saint Marys Hospital polio ward. She had some paralysis in one arm and one leg. Frank said their family was lucky financially because the March of Dimes helped them out. And so it did with many of us.

June Torrison, who with her husband, Reg, were formerly involved in barbershop chorus singing in LeRoy, told me she recalls how at basketball games in small towns everybody supported the March of Dimes. Cheerleaders would hold the corners of blankets, and people tossed in dimes to support the research.


There was always a picture of President Roosevelt attached. Remember how he and his law partner, Basil O’Conner, started the "march" in 1938. With much research by Drs. Sabin and Salk, a new vaccine was declared effective in April 1955.

Mrs. Olivia Heim of St. Charles told me shortly after I began writing this column 2 1/2 years ago that her 1953 Lewiston class lost a member with polio just after they had graduated. He was 18-year-old Jim McCormick, who died of bulbar polio. His mom also was stricken and in an iron lung for a time. The Winona County Fair was canceled that year due to the epidemic. Jim was the second to die of the disease in Winona County.

Wayne Henrickson wrote how his sister also had polio but was able to walk quite normally following several operations. However, she had to buy two sizes of shoes. One foot simply stopped growing for a time. There are many such stories of muscle work, hand splints, ankle supports, crutches, leg braces, wheelchairs, iron lungs and chest respirators.

Veteran Realtor Bill Towey remembers the summer when he was 12. His mom wouldn’t let her kids play with anyone farther than the house on either side of their home. However, his mom let everybody go to church. She felt no one would catch the disease there. Bill’s father had polio as a very young boy, which made his mom even more afraid. His father came through it with one lung still working. Bill told me that a family near St. Charles had 10 children. Eight were stricken with polio.

At Sister Kenny’s Hospital, three from the Herb Krippner family came in at the same time from Owatonna. Father Herb was 34; he walked but was very weak. Son Stan, 7, and 18-month-old Virginia came through it fairly well.

Now with the Salk vaccine, polio has been nearly eradicated with the exception of about four countries in the Mideast.

As you returned to your bed following a day of hot packs and physical therapy, a question always came from another patient, "Hey, any new muscles today?" Answer: "No, I’d just like to have some old ones back."

Next week: Spring and more baseball memories.

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