The Roanoker - September/October 2020 - 13

NELSON HARRIS is a former mayor of Roanoke and author of a dozen books on
the region's history. He is the minister at Heights Community Church in Roanoke
and a past president of the Historical Society of Western Virginia.

COURTESY OF CARILION CLINIC

what hundreds of other communities throughout the
nation had done in relying upon that theory to literally
hose down alleys, streets, playgrounds and stream beds
with the highly toxic pesticide DDT. In Roanoke and
Roanoke County this was done on several occasions
with photos appearing in local newspapers of
playground equipment being washed in DDT.
Polio took six to twenty days to incubate and
remained contagious for up to two weeks. It had flu-like
symptoms such as sore throat, fatigue, muscle stiffness,
headache, and stomach pains. Given its incubation
period, success at contract tracing was sporadic at best,
and with no known cause almost futile.
In Wythe County leaders closed schools and
canceled events, and Wytheville's baseball team pulled
out of its farm league for the 1950 season. Signs were
posted on the main highway through town advising
visitors not to stop, even for gas, but to keep driving.
As for the Roanoke Valley, Hoobler anticipated the
worst was to come. And it did. For the six-month
period that was the basis for his report in February
1951, Roanoke and Roanoke County had a combined
polio victim count of slightly more than thirty. He
and physicians spoke to local civic and business
organizations about treatment and prevention, but
with a relatively low per capita polio rate life in the
Roanoke Valley continued as normal in 1951. That
eventually changed.

TheRoanoker.com

Dr. Louis Ripley recalled years later those months
in 1950. "It was awful. Whole floors of the hospital
were full of patients."
During the late summer of that year nearly half the
patients admitted to the hospital had polio. At times,
cars lined the road in front of the hospital bringing
the afflicted from Southwestern Virginia. According
to Ripley, "There was little we could do."
Frequent power outages at the hospital meant
orderlies, cooks, secretaries and others rushed to the
polio wards to help nurses and doctors hand pump
the iron lungs.
The hospital received tremendous community
support. The Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew
under the direction of Julian Stanley Wise provided
several iron lungs. The Norfolk & Western Railway
outfitted freight cars for the transport of iron lung
patients, usually to Children's Hospital in Richmond.
The Society for the Crippled of Southwestern Virginia
provided field clinics for follow-up once patients were
released for home care.
Only in 1957 when the Salk vaccine arrived did
polio abate. Between 1951 and 1957, Memorial and
Crippled Children's Hospital handled varying levels
of polio admissions, but no year was greater than 1950.
The last case of infantile paralysis to be treated at the
hospital was in 1962.

ABOVE:
Dr. Olin Melchionna examines
a polio patient at Memorial and
Crippled Children's Hospital.

-NELSON HARRIS

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020

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The Roanoker - September/October 2020

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