Tommy High was a sophomore at Reddick High School in Florida in 1950 when it happened – he contracted polio. Tommy fought for his life. He was in the hospital for seven agonizing months. When he was released from the hospital he went home, to the farm, but he was 95% paralyzed.
The family was faced with a large hospital bill ($3,800) but the Polio Foundation stepped in and paid the bill. While Tommy was convalescing, he made up his mind to repay the Polio Foundation. In coming up with a plan to repay the Polio Foundation Tommy decided to use his vocational agriculture farming program (SAE to you and me) to earn the money.
Tommy selected a barrow from a group of Duroc hogs to be his “polio pig.” All during the winter show season in Florida, he showed his pig. When the pig came up for auction the buyers were told the story of Tommy and that he was trying to raise money to repay the Polio Foundation. Bidding would always be brisk and the buyer would then return the pig to be auctioned again at another show. Tommy raised enough money to repay the Polio Foundation (Cox, 1953). Tommy was an officer in the Reddick High FFA and was also a 4-H member.
Figure 1 Photo of Tommy High from The National Future Farmer Magazine
Not only did polio impact Tommy and many other FFA and 4-H members, it also impacted FFA and 4-H chapters and state associations. What we are currently experiencing with the COVID-19 outbreak is not the first time agricultural education activities have been impacted by an infectious disease. During the 1940s and 1950s, the polio epidemic was a major problem to be reckoned with. In this Friday Footnote, we will explore the polio epidemic and agricultural education.
The Polio Epidemic
The following information comes from NPR (Beaubien, 2012):
Sixty years ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.
As the weather warmed up each year, panic over polio intensified. Late summer was dubbed “polio season.” Public swimming pools were shut down. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together to avoid spreading the disease. Insurance companies started selling polio insurance for newborns.
The fear was well grounded. By the 1950s, polio had become one of the most serious communicable diseases among children in the United States.
In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died. Hospitals set up special units with iron lung machines to keep polio victims alive. Rich kids as well as poor were left paralyzed.
Then in 1955, the U.S. began widespread vaccinations. By 1979, the virus had been completely eliminated across the country.
I was in elementary school during the peak of the polio epidemic. I remember receiving donation cards from the March of Dimes campaign. I was to take the card home, fill the slots with dimes, and return the card. I did.
Figure 2. A March of Dimes fundraising card.
I also remember seeing images of children in iron lung machines. The images were sobering. The iron lungs saved many thousands of lives by helping the polio victims breathe [today’s equivalent are ventilators] but the iron lungs were expensive to buy and operate and were large and cumbersome. Children were confined to the iron lung machines for months, years, and sometimes for life.
Figure 3. Iron Lungs
Many children who survived polio were crippled and were confined to wheelchairs or required leg braces and crutches to walk. They often had deformed limbs.
Figure 4. Young Polio Victim (photo from the Los Angeles Public Library)
Impact of the Polio Epidemic
Parents stopped sending their children to playgrounds or birthday parties for fear they would “catch polio. In July 1949, with a polio epidemic underway, Springfield, Illinois officials ordered children under 16 years old into quarantine – confined, with few exceptions, to their own backyards. Swimming pools and movie theaters closed during polio season. School openings in the fall were often pushed back to avoid “polio season.” Activities involving crowds were canceled. Can you spell Déjà Vu?
Following is a sampling of how the polio epidemic impacted 4-H, FFA, and schools. This is an abbreviated sample. I could fill pages with other examples, but this Footnote will be long enough as is. To avoid redundancy, I have not used the word polio below. All of the actions listed below were because of polio outbreaks.
- In 1944, Troy High School (PA) didn’t start until October 2.
- School started two weeks later than normal in Louisville, KY in 1944.
- In 1945 Cary High School in North Carolina started three weeks late.
Camps and Conventions:
- The Merced (CA) County 4-H Outdoor Science and Adventure Camp (which has been in operation for over 80 years) did not operate in 1934 and 1948.
- In 1935 the North Carolina state FFA convention was canceled.
- In 1942 the Purchase 4-H Camp at Columbia Park (KY) was called off.
- The 4-H Encampment associated with the Kansas State Fair was canceled in 1943.
- In 1946 the Mississippi FFA Convention was canceled.
- In August of 1946 in Minneapolis, the 4-H club achievement days were canceled.
- in 1948 the State 4-H Club Week in North Carolina was canceled.
- In 1948 the South Carolina FFA Convention was canceled.
- The 4-H Camp associated with the Colorado State Fair was canceled in 1951.
County and State Fairs:
- The Unionville (PA) Community Fair was canceled in 1931.
- In 1944 children under the age of 14 were barred from the Kentucky State Fair.
- The Boulder County (CO) fair was canceled in 1946
- The Minnesota State Fair was canceled in 1946
- The Crow Wing County Fair (MN) was canceled in 1946.
- The Murray County Fair (MN) was canceled in 1946.
- The Calumet (WI) County fair was canceled in 1955
While polio disrupted 4-H and FFA group activities it had a profound effect on individual members of FFA and 4-H. The following article about a 4-H member shows the determination and courage the young people of the polio era exhibited.
Figure 5. Article from the February 1952 National 4-H News
How Did 4-H and FFA Respond to the Polio Epidemic?
The FFA and 4-H were active in the fight against polio. At the October 1955 FFA Board Meeting, Dr. C. E. Turner of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis appeared before the Board and expressed appreciation to the members of the FFA for the work they have done, through their chapters, in fighting polio. He identified a problem in securing additional funds to provide the needed vaccine before the next polio season. He asked the FFA to support the March of Dimes through participation in the “Teens Against Polio” (TAPS) Campaign. How did the FFA leadership respond?
IT WAS MOVED BY JAY WRIGHT, seconded by Lowell Gisselbeck and carried, that the Board of Student Officers recommend the endorsement of the program of “Teens Against Polio” and that the FFA Chapters continue to cooperate in the fight against polio.
The FFA and 4-H had been involved in the fight against polio before 1955. At the 1949 National FFA Convention, the Public Speaking winner (Burton Bosch of Chinook, Montana) spoke about water pollution and described in detail how polio was most prevalent in the summer when young people were swimming, often in unclean water. His speech contained sobering statistics related to health issues and polio.
The 1951 March of Dimes Poster Boy was Larry McKenzie from Kuckville, New York. He was a 12-year-old 4-H member.
Figure 6. Image from the Extension Service Review, December 1950.
The Neligh, Nebraska FFA chapter was recognized as a gold emblem chapter in 1945. While their major accomplishments centered around providing food for the war effort, one of their accomplishments was donating $19.25 to the Polio Fund. In 1950 the Shawnee Mission (KS) FFA collected $82 between the halves of two basketball games for the Polio Drive. Many FFA chapters and 4-H clubs had fundraising activities to support the March of Dimes.
Figure 7. 4-H Fund Raising article from the April 1951 National 4-H News.
In 1953, after a large storm passed through southeastern Minnesota, Freeborn FFA Advisor, Lee Asche, had the idea to gather corn that fell to the ground and sell it to the local grain elevator. The Freeborn FFA Chapter took the money that was raised, $90, and donated it to Camp Courage (a camp for children with polio). The following school year, FFA Executive Secretary, W. J. Kortesmaki encouraged all Minnesota FFA Chapters to participate in the corn drive. By 1979 donations from the FFA reached one million dollars, and since that time more than six million dollars have been raised for children and adults with disabilities.
Figure 8. Fund Raising for Camp Courage
The April 1953 issue of 4-H News contained a news item titled “Orthopedic-I.” To express their gratitude that none of the 4-H members of the Blue Mountain (Oregon) sheep club were victims of the polio epidemic, all members donated $1.50 to buy a Southdown feeder lamb. The lamb (named Orthopedic-I) was fed out and sold at the Rotary Club livestock show. It brought $245.62 and the funds were donated to the Shrine Hospital for Crippled Children.
In 1957 the National FFA President, John M. Haid, Jr. of Arkansas, participated in the Youth Conference on Polio Vaccination in New York City.
Figure 9. 4-H and FFA student leaders support TAP
An article in the Winter 1955 issue of The National Future Farmer magazine was titled “Polio Prevention Possible.” In the article, it was reported that a field test of the Salk polio vaccine was being made in 44 states and involved one million eight hundred thousand children. If the field testing proved to be successful it was concluded (p. 35) “…the most susceptible groups in the population will have protection before the next polio season, and work will be begun to insure control for the whole population, eventually, to wipe out one of the dreaded ‘uncontrollable’ diseased.” [Curator’s note: I spent much of last November in Nigeria and had to take a polio booster shot before traveling there. Prior to this, I had not thought about polio in decades. Nigeria is one of four nations in the world where polio is still an issue.]
A brief note titled “Help Lick Polio” appeared in the Dec.-Jan 1956-57 issue of The National Future Farmer. It was noted that FFA members had participated in the March of Dimes campaign, described the safety of the Salk vaccine, and encouraged participation in Teens against Polio (TAP).
TAPs was a volunteer group that raised money for the March of Dimes and encouraged teens to get all three of the Salk polio shots. There was a short article promoting membership in TAPS to FFA members in the February-March 1958 issue of The National Future Farmer magazine (Hicks, 1958).
Even after polio was brought under control with vaccines, the FFA and 4-H continued to support the March of Dimes. The article “TAPped for the March of Dimes” published in the Dec-Jan 1964-65 issue of The National Future Farmer identified various activities in which FFA chapters were involved to raise funds to support the March of Dimes. Some of the activities identified were auctions, selling packets of seed, going house to house collecting donations (in 1956 the Nyassa, Oregon FFA collected money in a basket tied to the packsaddle of a burro), growing crops, having a basketball game pitting faculty against FFA members, and collecting grain donations to be sold. To this day numerous FFA chapters and 4-H clubs include the March of Dimes in their program of activities.
The following is a true story (Reck, 1951, pp. 141-142):
In the fall of 1915, T. A. Erickson, Minnesota’s state club leader, was traveling the state, rechecking corn plots for the state-wide corn acre contest. He came to the Simpson farm near Northfield, a forty-acre plot run by a widow and two sons. One of the sons, Warren Simpson, was entered in the contest.
The widow introduced her boys, one of whom had suffered an attack of polio that had reduced his left arm and leg to uselessness. Incredibly, the polio victim was the contestant.
“Are you Warren?” Erickson asked unbelievingly. “How do you cultivate your patch?”
Eagerly the boy told him. He had a short-handled hoe, small enough to be wielded with one hand. During the growing season he had crawled through the acre patch, hunching himself laboriously along, chopping out the weeds and aerating the soil with his good right hand.
Erickson marveled at the fortitude of a boy who could hardly walk, yet found a way of cultivating his corn. The state leader husked the necessary samples of Simpson’s corn, took them to the college, dried and weighed them. The boy’s acre figured out 106 bushels, high enough to win first in the district and second in the state.
Warren Simpson later attended the University of Minnesota and became an agriculture teacher and 4-H club leader.
When our students and fellow educators grumble about the inconvenience and problems created by the COVID-19 epidemic, we need to remember the examples of courage and resilience demonstrated by Tommy Bright, Peggy Morgan, and Warren Simpson. They overcame the pain and physical limitations caused by polio to succeed.
Polio severely disrupted life in the first half of the 20th century. It affected how we conducted school and impacted 4-H and FFA members and activities. Some opportunities for the students were canceled or disappeared. The current COVID-19 epidemic is having the same type of impact. However, as we look backward, we know that a vaccine was created to combat polio and in all likelihood, a vaccine will be created to combat COVID-19. Things did return to normal in the late 1950s and years that followed. Agricultural Education, 4-H, and FFA did survive the polio epidemic. We will also survive the current situation. We must stay positive and keep the faith.
Beaubien, J. (October 15, 2012). Wiping Out Polio: How the U.S. Snuffed Out A Killer. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/16/162670836/wiping-out-polio-how-the-u-s-snuffed-out-a-killer
Cox, Doris (1953, Spring). A Fight for Life. The National Future Farmer. Volume 1, Issue 3.
Help Lick Polio. (1956-57, December-January). The National Future Farmer. Volume 5, Issue 2.
Hicks, Patty (1958, February-March) TAPS are Tops. The National Future Farmer. Volume 6, Issue 3.
Minutes of the Joint Meeting of the Boards of Student Officers and Directors of the Future Farmers of America, October 8-9, 1955. https://archives.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/2450/8937/1955-10-08.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y
Polio Prevention Possible. (1955, Winter). The National Future Farmer. Volume 3, Issue 2.
Reck, F. M. (1951). The 4-H Story: A History of 4-H Club Work. National 4-H Service Committee.
TAPped for the March of Dimes (Dec-Jan, 1964-65). The National Future Farmer. Volume 13, Issue 2.