Stranger Than Fiction: Polio ‘Treatments’ in the 1900’s

There’s no doubt whatsoever that the polio epidemics of the early 20th century left a traumatic and lasting impression on the American psyche (and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Western psyche). Everybody seems to know somebody who was ‘crippled by polio’. The fear and devastation were very real indeed.

Others have written excellent, in-depth analyses on what caused sporadic cases to become widespread and disabling epidemics, but few have delved into the reality of medical care exacerbating the severity of poliomyelitis.

Below are some of the treatments you could expect, if stricken by paralysis in the early 1900’s:

  • Intramuscular injections of strychnine (which can cause paralysis and nerve damage – if it doesn’t kill you outright) [1].
  • Lumbar punctures, which can cause or exacerbate paralysis, and also precede respiratory problems (which would have been blamed on ‘bulbar’ polio) [1].
  • Intraspinal injections of adrenaline (almost half of the recipients died), human serum, or quinine and urea hydrochloride (3 of 6 children given this mixture orally and intramuscularly died). Even intraspinal injections of horse serum were tried [1].
  • Injections of tetanus antitoxin – the rationale being that “tetanus, rabies and poliomyelitis all attacked nerve cells, so perhaps giving the antitoxin would block access to absorption sites on the cells”. Even injections of diptheria antitoxin were tried, with 3 out of 5 patients dying [1].
  • Tendon cutting and transplantation [2].
  • Painful electrical treatments [2].
  • Radium water (After radium was discovered in 1898, it quickly gained popularity, proclaimed as a ‘cure-all’ elixir that could make one young again, and cure all kinds of ills and ails) [3].
  • Surgical Straightening: Dr. John Pohl, in an interview circa 1940, said “We’d take the children to the operating room in those days, straighten them out under anaesthetic, and put them in plaster casts. When they woke up, they screamed. The next day they still cried from the pain. That was the accepted and universal treatment virtually all over the world. I saw it in Boston and New York City and London” [4].
  • Even laypeople had their ‘cures’ and remedies, and some saw it as too good an opportunity to pass up. During the deadly 1916 epidemic, the New York Times reported that one Joseph Frooks had been charged with selling ‘Infantile Disease Protector’, which, upon investigation, was found to contain “a mixture of wood shavings” that were saturated in a mixture smelling remarkably like naphthalene [5].

It behoves us to ask…how many people were disabled or killed by polio – and how many by the so-called ‘treatments’ for polio?

References:

[1] Wyatt HV, Before the Vaccines: Medical Treatments of Acute Paralysis in the 1916 New York Epidemic of Poliomyelitis, The Open Microbiology Journal. 2014, 8:144-147.

[2] Paul JR. A History of poliomyelitis, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1971.

[3] Gould T, A Summer Plague: Polio and its Survivors, Yale University Press, 1997.

[4] Cohn V. Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors, University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

[5] Ibid See reference 3.

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