People born in the United States after 1960 don’t remember it. Those born in the 1950’s might not remember anyone suffering from an active case of it, but we surely do remember numerous adults who carried the life-long signs of having survived it.
Poliomyelitis / Polio / Infantile Paralysis has been around for millennia. Some Egyptologists theorize that King Tut suffered from it, as evidenced by some of the depictions of the boy king as well as by the unique design of his sandals. A lack of basic sanitation in early times meant that people were exposed to the virus fairly routinely. Consequently, some level of natural community immunity was developed, and epidemic outbreaks did not typically occur. Ironically, improvements in sewage disposal starting in the late 19th century resulted in an increase in cases of the dreaded “infantile paralysis.” By 1900 serious outbreaks, at times reaching pandemic proportions, were being experienced across Europe and the United States.
EARLY SONOMA COUNTY EXPERIENCE
In the early part of the 20th century, the Taeuffer family living on the Magnolia Drive ranch just south of Healdsburg, California was hit by poliomyelitis. In October 1924, George and Dorothy (Taeuffer) Harris watched helplessly as their 16-month-old son Bobby fell ill. Fortunately, little Bobby survived the illness. He would, however, be left with one foot smaller than the other as a reminder. Tragically, his Uncle Ernest Taeuffer living next door was not so lucky. Three days after Ernest fell ill, he died, just weeks before his 22nd birthday. Read more about his life here.
The following year outbreaks in nearby Windsor, Pt. Arena, and Occidental convinced officials to close the schools. Two years later, in 1927, the scourge reappeared. Once again schools were closed, and public gatherings were canceled. The number of cases in Sonoma County would ebb and flow throughout the 1930s.
Early work with antibody treatments, then referred to as pooled-blood gamma globulin serum, that were believed to have preventative properties, provided hope that a cure would soon be found. Unfortunately, at that time the state of California did not regulate the manufacture of these pharmaceuticals. Predictably, tragedy struck in 1934 when improperly prepared serum killed two-year old Healdsburg boy, Jackie Baldwin. The San Francisco newspapers picked up on the story and added embellished reports of widespread polio outbreaks in the Healdsburg region. When cancelations of reservations began pouring in to Russian River resorts, local authorities, including City Health Officer Dr. J. Walter Seawell, hurriedly began issuing assurances that it was safe to swim in the river.
The Baldwin case resulted in a radical change to the state of California’s supervision over serum manufacturing. The Coroner’s jury investigating the boy’s untimely death, comprised completely of medical professionals, issued the recommendation that resulted in all clinical laboratories and technicians being licensed by and placed under the supervision of the State Board of Health.
On January 3, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been crippled as a result of a case of polio years earlier, created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. During a radio fundraising appeal that month, popular vaudeville star Eddie Cantor urged people to send dimes to the president and coined the phrase “March of Dimes.” The Healdsburg Kiwanis Club immediately jumped on the bandwagon, sponsoring the local fundraiser celebrating FDR’s birthday in 1938.
Once the United States entered World War II, people’s focus shifted somewhat from the disease, even as the number of cases continued to grow. Periodic warnings were issued to keep children out of the river, summer camps were intermittently closed due to an outbreak, etc. In July 1943, Dr. Dwight Barnett, head of the Sonoma County Health Department issued a blanket recommendation that children be kept away from movies, picnics, summer school, or any other gathering.
The standard of care in the early years was to immobilize the affected limbs using bulky braces. Those with severe cases who required assistance to breathe were sentenced to be placed in an iron lung. But there were some medical professionals who had visions of non-traditional treatments. Some worked out more successfully than others.
As early as the mid-1800s, people believed that the hot mineral water at the Geysers in Sonoma County had curative properties. In 1852 a hotel was built to accommodate visitors hoping to benefit from the fresh air and “taking the waters.” Despite the arduous stagecoach ride to get there, the hotel remained open well into the 1890s. The resort would change hands and be renovated numerous times before ultimately closing.
In the early 1930s San Francisco doctor Joseph Sooy signed a 99-year lease for the area around the Geysers with the intention of converting the abandoned hotel into a sanitarium for the treatment of infantile paralysis sufferers. Since the road to the area had not been improved from the stagecoach days, Dr. Sooy began a quest for public funds to build a modern road. In early 1936, the WPA allocated $99,000 for the project. Dr. Sooy’s renovation of the historic hotel was interrupted in 1938 when a portion of the adjacent mountain slid down onto the hotel resulting in a fire that destroyed much of the building. Dr. Sooy continued his efforts to raise funds to build his sanitarium, even submitting a request for a permit to serve alcoholic beverages at the Geysers in 1940. But it was not to be. In January 1941 he announced he was giving up his association with the project and by May of that year had taken a position at a hospital in Napa. The sanitarium was never built.
THE KENNY METHOD
In the early 1930s, the conventional treatment for polio was to immobilize limbs that were in muscle spasm. But unconventional Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny had a different idea. She promoted a process of applying hot towels to the muscles and performing passive exercise to release the tension. Doctors in Australia and Europe did not appreciate this self-taught and outspoken woman contradicting them, and eventually she travelled to the United States where the reaction to her innovative methods was more favorable. By 1943 many doctors in Sonoma County had enthusiastically adopted the “Kenny Method.” Her early version of physical therapy aided recovery of children across America, including Milt Brandt, former prune farmer and veteran of World War II who would go on to become a prominent Healdsburg citizen; Butch Gibbs, son of Healdsburg Elementary School Principal Byron Gibbs, and many others in Sonoma County.
POST-WAR FUNDRAISING IN HEALDSBURG
Half of the money collected by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was retained by the local chapter to pay for equipment, hospitalization, and treatment of polio patients. The other half went to the national foundation to fund research and education. Throughout World War II Healdsburg Postmaster S.H. Cooley had been serving as the head of fundraising for the community. Just weeks after the war ended, his 10-year-old son, Spencer Cooley, perished of the disease. The cause was now personal, and he doubled his efforts.
The 1946 epidemic was the worst experienced since 1916, with 2,200 cases in California alone. Newspapers listed number of cases and named locally prominent people who contracted the disease or had deaths in their family. That year the Boy Scouts were enlisted to place collection containers across town.
Things continued to worsen and in September 1948 the Sonoma County Chapter reported that they were out of funds. The number of polio cases in the county in the prior three months had exceeded the entire 12 months of 1947.
In 1949 Healdsburg taverns were enlisted to help in the fundraising effort. In January, the new management of the Sportsman Club held a March of Dimes Night including music by Spence & his Syncopators. Not to be outdone, Sid Schwab, manager of Vic & Ned’s “Nuf Sed” Bar spread a $5 roll of dimes along the recession in the bar of that establishment and encouraged patrons to add their change rather than pocketing it. He was able to collect over $600 in February alone.
After 1949 was dubbed “the blackest in the history of infantile paralysis,” competition between taverns took it up a notch and in 1950 Earl Belli and Claude Cottini’s “339 Club” in Healdsburg copied Schwab’s fundraising procedure. Next the gimmick spread to Santa Rosa, where R.R. “Dutch” Scheiderider implemented the same collection technique at his establishment “The Office,” as did Mary and Rico Venturi at their place “Marico’s.”
Other activities which began in 1950 and would become annual events included the 20-30 Club basketball squad’s exhibition game against the “Colored Ghosts” barnstorming basketball team, the Healdsburg Women’s Golf Club tournament, and a boxing tournament between the Lytton Home and Healdsburg Boys Clubs. In addition, collection boxes in the shape of tiny iron lungs began being placed in retail businesses throughout Healdsburg.
THE ROAD TO A VACCINE
Work on developing a safe and effective vaccine had begun in earnest during the 1930s. But testing of some early versions of a live but weakened (attenuated) vaccine in 1935 was poorly executed and several children were killed. A second vaccine, this one made with dead (inactivated) virus, was tested with better results, but the fact that one child in the study contracted the disease was deemed sufficient evidence for rejection. The strong public reaction to these botched experiments would push research efforts onto the back burner for at least 15 years.
But by the early 1950s, polio was reaching epidemic proportions and pharmaceutical companies began investing millions of dollars into research. In 1952 Dr. Jonas Salk and a team at the University of Pittsburg announced a successful test of an injectable inactivated vaccine and large-scale testing commenced in February 1954. The formula was licensed in 1955 and a mass immunization effort was organized by the March of Dimes. Tragically, manufacturing errors resulted in some improperly inactivated vaccine being distributed and 250 children were killed or paralyzed before the Surgeon General ordered it pulled. This resulted in strong negative public reaction and public confidence in polio vaccine again faltered. But science would prevail and widespread vaccination would begin.
Meanwhile, Albert Sabin had been working in Mexico and the Soviet Union on an orally administered attenuated virus vaccine. In 1959 his vaccine using live strains of all three types of the virus was successfully tested on ten million children in the Soviet Union. This oral vaccine became widely available in 1964 and would soon become the preferred version.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
In 1953, parents held out hope of protecting their children from contracting polio via injection of Gamma Globulin. But the Red Cross was clear in their communication that the supply would cover only 10% of children at best. Furthermore, the modest protective effects of the serum were found to wear off about 6 weeks after injection. When news of Dr. Salk’s vaccine testing roll-out in January 1954 was announced, Health Department officials tempered excitement with warnings that, again, supply was limited, and the full effects were yet to be fully tested and efficacy confirmed. Also, only those counties with the heaviest incidence of polio would receive the test injections.
The results of the initial testing of the Salk vaccine were favorable and in spring of 1955 an inoculation program for children enrolled in first and second grades in the Healdsburg and surrounding area was announced. Postmaster Spenser H. Cooley, whose young son had died from the disease, had served as head of the Healdsburg March of Dimes since its inception, but in 1956 health issues forced him to step down. Milt Brandt, local businessman who had personally suffered the effects of polio, then took up the reins.
In January 1957 Brandt announced that the American Legion Auxiliary and West Side 4-H Club would be selling little plastic “blue crutches” as a fundraising initiative. Tables were set up in front of popular Healdsburg stores. Maria Taeuffer, Florence Mussleman, Grace Stewart, Anita Larrieu, Mildred Gagliardo, Betty Taylor, and Margaret Cadd were among those from the Legion Auxiliary helping out. The word also went out that month to “keep your porch light on” to let the ladies going door to door to collect donations know you wanted to participate. Maria Taeuffer, who in January 1957 had been named health chairman of the Healdsburg Elementary PTA, took the lead for that organization.
THINGS BEGIN TO MOVE QUICKLY
In December 1961, the Sonoma County Health Department announced the implementation of the California state law requiring anti-polio vaccinations (at that time the injectable Salk version) for all primary and secondary school attendees, as well as those attending adult education and junior college. The effective dates were January 13, 1962 for transfer students and the first day of school in September 1962 for continuing students. Monthly vaccination clinics were set up by the County Health Department to accommodate those not able to access private medical care.
Approval of the Sabin oral vaccine resulted in some public confusion. There was debate over which vaccine was better and folks wondered if they should delay getting vaccinated until the newer version became available. Mass immunizations using the Sabin oral vaccine were planned in California in the second half of 1962, but in 1961 and early 1962 people were being urged not to wait and to get the Salk injections since they were available sooner.
One-day clinics offering the Sabin oral vaccine that were dubbed the “Knock Out Punch” were held at Healdsburg and Geyserville High Schools in September 1962 to accommodate children as young as three months up to the most elderly. Chairman Milt Brandt stressed that even those who had received the Salk vaccine in the past should participate since the Sabin vaccine provided the added benefit of preventing the recipient from becoming a carrier of the disease.
Turn-out far exceeded expectations and volunteers had to go to the local supermarkets to buy additional sugar cubes and to Lonnie’s restaurant for additional paper cups. On the morning of the clinic extra doses of vaccine were sent from Santa Rosa by helicopter once it was realized how many had gathered to receive the vaccine. Community groups supporting the effort included various Mothers Clubs, PTAs, Scouts, local pharmacists, dentists, nurses, and doctors. Even the local undertakers, Fred Young & Co. provided transportation to the clinic for those who needed it. At the end of the day almost 8,400 people had received their first dose, including little Jeannie Taeuffer, not quite 4 years old. The second dose was administered in November and over 8,800 people were served. The third dose was given the following March.
IS IT FINALLY OVER?
Progress continued as did fundraising. In January 1963, Legion Auxiliary Chairperson Anita Larrieu led the selling of rainbow crutches in front of prominent retail locations in Healdsburg. She was assisted by many others including Maria Taeuffer. Later that year a Triavalent Oral Vaccine that required only two doses and shrank the administration duration from 12 to 8 weeks became available. It was recommended even for those who had been inoculated with earlier vaccines.
In April 1964, A. Thurlow Jr., MD, president of the Sonoma County Medical Society, announced there had not been one case of polio in the county in 1963. He cautioned citizens that if we were to extend this record, new residents and newborns would need to receive the vaccine as quickly as possible. In February 1966, the first case of polio in Sonoma County since 1961 was reported. It had occurred in an unvaccinated pre-school child who had recently traveled outside the United States.
In January 1968, the annual March of Dimes fund drive was announced and those interested in donating were again asked to turn on their porch light for the ladies collecting door to door. But the Healdsburg Tribune reported “The March of Dimes, having all but wiped out polio with its public supported funds for research, is now concentrating on the alleviation of birth defects in children.”
Could it be that the nightmare was finally over? Well, sort of. The CDC reports that the United States has been polio-free since 1979. But those of us born long enough ago remember that well into the 1980s there were still thousands of adults who had survived the disease, but who would carry the effects with them for life. My personal remembrance is of my father’s deer-hunting buddy, Orson Kinder. Orson Allen Kinder was born in Oklahoma in 1919 and as a boy contracted polio. His mother told the story that he had come close to death but had miraculously survived. I clearly recall that he walked with a pronounced limp and that his hands did not ever seem exactly right. He was a kind, gentle, cheerful, funny man who would give us kids rides in his Army jeep up at the hunting club called Macaroni Flats. Orson had a successful career working for local utility company, PG&E, but he never married, and he lived his entire life with his mother.
Let us all hope that the millions of people who have survived the current scourge of COVID-19 do not suffer similar life-altering long-term effects.
National Geographic “Tut’s Treasures – Hidden Secrets” 2018
Library of Congress Images
Correspondence between Jean Taeuffer and Sharon Albini Mansfield, 19 January 2021
Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise, and Scimitar; 7 August 1925, 19 November 1925, 8 September 1927, 1 October 1927, 20 October 1927, 21 June 1934, 28 June 1934, 12 July 1934, 23 May 1935, 27 January 1938, 3 February 1938, 4 January 1940, 2 May 1940, 2 January 1941, 15 May 1941, 9 July 1943, 16 July 1943, 30 July 1943, 11 January 1946, 18 January 1946, 17 January 1946, 23 May 1947, 10 September 1948, 7 January 1949, 14 January 1949, 21 January 1949, 28 January 1949, 4 February 1949, 20 January 1950, 27 January 1950, 5 March 1953, 19 March 1953, 7 January 1954, 28 January 1954, 14 April 1955, 10 January 1957, 17 January 1957, 24 January 1957, 27 July 1961, 28 June 1962, 10 January 1963, 5 September 1963, 16 April 1964, 17 February 1966, 28 December 1961, 18 January 1968, 12 March 1970,
Sotoyome Scimitar; 28 June 1934, 5 July 1934, 11 April 1935, 6 February 1936, 28 January 1943
Sonoma Democrat; 14 June 1860
World War II Draft Cards, Young Men 1940 – 1947