The Roanoker - September/October 2020 - 12

strange days of roanoke

Polio Hits Southwest Virginia

ABOVE:
Memorial and Crippled
Children's Hospital (now
Carilion Roanoke Memorial
Hospital) physician, Dr. Louis
Ripley, works with a patient
who had corrective surgery
for polio around 1950.

12

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

W. H. HOOBLER knew what was coming to
Roanoke: polio.
Hoobler was the administrator for the largest hospital
in Western Virginia and the epicenter of care for polio
victims in the region. Trustees of Roanoke Hospital
had changed the name to Memorial and Crippled
Children's Hospital in 1949 to reflect the increasing role
the hospital was playing in treating polio. By the end of
January 1951, Hobbler reported staggering numbers.
Between July 1, 1950, and January 28, 1951,
Memorial and Crippled Children's Hospital had
received 450 polio patients mostly from the rural
counties in Southwestern Virginia. The national "hot
spot" for polio was Wytheville that had a per capita rate
seventy times that of the nation.
So prominent was the town's infection rate, the National
Foundation for Infantile Paralysis flew its executive
director into Roanoke, who then drove to Wytheville, to
launch the nationwide 1951 "March of Dimes" campaign
with a live coast-to-coast radio broadcast from the town on
January 14. Patients from Wytheville and Wythe County
accounted for 169 of the hospital's cases.

Overrun with polio patients, Hoobler had cleared the
entire first floor of Memorial and Crippled Children's
Hospital to serve as a polio ward, and more beds were
needed. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis
funded specialists to assist Roanoke's physicians.
Doctors M.K. Johnson, Thomas Porterfield, Harry Cox,
Herman Gailey and Lloyd Crawford were pediatric and
orthopedic specialists that had come from as far away
as New York. Hoobler and the local chapters of the
Red Cross and March of Dimes had appealed for more
nurses. Student nurses were pressed into service, and
those from out of town were housed at the YWCA.
When a polio patient was admitted, the prognosis
was often not optimistic. Of the 450 patients referenced
in Hoobler's report, slightly more than one-fourth had
some form of paralysis. One in ten required an iron lung,
and of those half died. The vast majority of patients
were children.
Complicating the situation was the lack of
information regarding the cause of polio. By the
late 1940s, a leading theory was that the disease was
transmitted by flies and mosquitoes. Roanoke had done

TheRoanoker.com

COURTESY OF CARILION CLINIC

How the Roanoke community handled the arrival of polio in 1950.


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The Roanoker - September/October 2020

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