June 27, 1995
The death last week of Dr. Jonas Salk calls again to mind the terror of polio, the disease his vaccine halted. Families today need not dread the crippling virus which only a few years ago devastated so many young people, as well as adults. Perry had its share of that sadness. Thanks to Dr. Salk, and the Sabin vaccine which came later, polio has virtually disappeared from the face of the earth.
But polio was ravaging young bodies in the early 1940s. A page one story in The Perry Daily Journal on Sept. 13, 1943, was an update on the condition of two of the victims at that time. One of them was Frankie Glenn Cutsinger, five-yearold son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Cutsinger who then lived at 602 Maple. He was being treated in Crippled Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City. Today, he is battling an even more serious illness at his home here, and many prayers are again being said in his behalf. Another polio victim then was the fivemonth-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Erwin Lampe, five miles north of Perry. Their child had just been diagnosed with the disease and she was in the Ponca City Hospital because the Crippled Children's Hospital had no more room.
It was a time of terror in Perry, as it was elsewhere in the U.S., particularly for parents of young children, because the cause of polio was unknown and youngsters were the most frequent victims of this terrible virus. Writer Ann L. McLaughlin and her historian husband, Charles, both victims of polio, recently wrote: "News clips from the 1950s polio epidemic today look eerily out of sync: headlines screaming with panic, hospitals crowded with iron lungs, gowned nurses hovering over paralyzed patients...." As illustrated by that article, from Maturity News Service, that was truly a harrowing era, but one that we no longer have to witness because the Salk and Sabin vaccines led to the virtual elimination of polio.
The new term in Perry was barely two months old when, on Oct. 28, 1949, a group of local mothers asked the school board to consider closing schools because of a growing number of polio cases here. Parents were reluctant to have their children in close contact with others who might be possible "carriers." After the mothers' plea was made, The Journal had this page one headline: "City Schools Not to Be Closed Because of Polio, Health Official Rules." The request to close schools had been made by a group of Perry women, representing no particular organization. Dr. C. H. Cooke, a physician and president of the school board, said no action was contemplated by the board of education. Dr. A. M. Evans, city health officer, also said he planned no moves toward closing schools. The Perry Journal also quoted information from the American Medical Association's official Journal stating that public and private schools should not be closed during an outbreak of polio nor should the opening be delayed except for specific reasons.
Dr. J. W Francis, another physician, also attempted to ease the mothers' fears. He was highly complimentary of the care being given polio patients during the current crisis. He said every regulation of the state health department concerning isolation of patients was being complied with at Perry General Hospital, which was operated by Dr. Cooke. Dr. Francis said hospitals such as Perry General were doing a great service to the people of Oklahoma because the polio care facilities had been taxed to the limit during the summer when the number of cases had gone beyond the ability of the medical profession to care for them adequately.
Later that month, on Oct. 20, 1949, the city council reversed itself and voted not to drain West Park Lake and turn the lakebed into a playground. The earlier action had been taken because of fears that the lake was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, the suspected carrier of the polio virus. Upon motion by Councilman R. W. Dotts, who also was president of the local Sportsmen's Club, the council voted to permit Joe Verser and Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Co. to repair the West Park Lake dam. Ed W. Watts, a member of the Sportsmen's Club who said he represented the Chamber of Commerce, protested the proposed draining. Mr. Verser addressed the council and voiced the opinion that mosquitoes could be controlled by spraying twice a year. The new Perry Memorial Hospital would be in the immediate area of the lake and some felt the state health department would require that the lake be eliminated.
That action prompted a letter to the editor of The Journal from Mrs. Pete Cutsinger, whose three-year-old daughter, Cheryl, was ill with polio. She had appeared before the council on June 16, 1948, to ask that the lake be drained or that no swimming be allowed in it without supervision. Mrs. Cutsinger still maintained the lake should be emptied to eliminate a safety and health hazard. She and others interested in the proposal lost that battle.
On Oct.. 27, 1949, The Journal reported on six recent cases of polio in Noble county. The story showed that most of the afflicted children were improving. Included were Karen Dale Ream, 9, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Dale B. Ream, in Tulsa's Hillcrest Hospital; Mary Gail Swenson, 4, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Werner Swenson, just returned home from Enid St. Mary's; Cheryl Sue Cutsinger, 4, showing improvement in Benedictine Heights Hospital, Guthrie; Gary Laird, 7, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Laird Jr., doing fine in the same Guthrie hospital; Don Malzahn, 4, son of Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Malzahn, getting better in Perry General Hospital; and Louis Brinkman, 6, son of Mr. and Mrs. O. H. Brinkman, northeast of Perry, also improving in Benedictine Heights Hospital.
Through the years, many more Noble county homes than these were touched by polio, and some cases were more poignant than others. In every instance, uncertainty fed the fear that always visited those who were afflicted. Not knowing the cause, not being able to guess the outcome or prognosis, and the plain fact that young children were most often the victims gave the epidemic an even more terrifying dimension.
The March of Dimes, a pet project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who himself had been crippled by polio, was a favorite charity throughout this country. Through it, funds were raised to find a cause and cure for the disease and assist families of victims. The Perry Lions and Rotary clubs played two benefit basketball games in the armory as March of Dimes fund-raisers, and I am proud to say that my Rotarians won both. (I was not a starter.) The 1950 game was an 18-16 thriller, with Bob Donahue pouring in 7 points for the Rotarians and Jack Lewellen leading the Lions with 6 points. The Lions quit challenging the Rotarians after two straight losses.
Finally, in 1955, Dr. Salk's injectable vaccine was declared effective and polio rates plunged. Dr. Albert Sabin's live-virus vaccine, swallowed on a sugar cube, was approved in 1961. Both types of vaccine are still used. Intensive campaigns have taken the vaccines to third world countries in recent years. As a result, polio has nearly been totally wiped out.
Memories of the suffering inflicted on children, adults and their families by paralytic poliomyelitis should remain with us as a reminder that medical science is capable of overcoming such tragic afflictions, given time, support and adequate resources. We are not necessarily celebrating, because the heartache and pain of the past are still too much with us, but we can rejoice in the knowledge that our children and grandchildren need not fear that particular disease which once was so fearsome.