Recent debates surrounding vaccinations raise the question: How do you impart the seriousness of a disease to a generation of people who have never suffered through the disease or lost a loved one to it? While public health officials can relay the symptoms and statistics relating to a disease, it is difficult for them to impart the emotional toll a disease takes on infected patients and their loved ones. For a time, we can look to victims to share their stories, but what happens when they are gone? Luckily, many of their stories are preserved in archives, including the Schlesinger Library.
One of the aims of the Schlesinger is to document the lives of "ordinary" women. Among the thousands of diaries and letters of these women, we find wrenching stories of illnesses striking families and communities. Through these documents, we feel the fear they experienced as epidemics spread, their worry that an illness could develop into something debilitating or fatal, and their grief when their worst fears are realized. We also see the amazing moments of human endurance, love, and sacrifice.
The Stark family in Dorchester, Massachusetts, was first struck by polio in 1909, when 9-year-old Natalie Stark fell ill with the disease. At the time, not much was known about the disease and there weren't many treatment options. Undeterred, her mother, Bertha Stark, sought out osteopathic treatments that ensured that Natalie was able to recover with only a slight limp.
A year after Natalie's bout with polio, her older sister, Marguerite Stark Bellamy, gave birth to her first child in Cleveland, Ohio. Bertha, who traveled to Cleveland for the event, announced the birth of "the first jewel in Marguerite's crown of motherhood, her little son John Stark Bellamy" to Natalie in a letter. In the letter, Bertha shares how John was finally delivered to the hospital by a farmer's wife who found him in a hay pile where a stork had dropped him after hitting a telephone pole.
Throughout the years, Marguerite lovingly and proudly conveyed details of John's life in letters to Bertha and Natalie. Through these letters, an impression emerges of John as an intelligent man who could be depended upon to take care of friends and family members. He often served as a mediator between his parents and younger siblings and helped his mother adjust to life following her divorce from Paul in 1941.
In 1942, John married Molly Doan. They were expecting their third child in November 1947, when John fell ill. A polio epidemic had hit Cleveland, so to protect Molly, Marguerite, and Natalie took charge of John's care. After several days, John was diagnosed with polio and taken to the hospital. On the same day, Molly gave birth to their son, Frederick.
After John was taken to the hospital, a health nurse from the Cleveland Department of Health instructed the family to wipe down his bed and bedside table as well as the bathroom and telephone with chlorine and to boil his bedding and towels before sending them out to be laundered.
In the hospital, John was put into an iron lung and cared for by three private duty nurses. Eventually, John's health improved. He began spending several hours a day outside of the iron lung and having frequent massages and hot packs applied to his muscles as part of the Sister Kenny treatment.
John was able to read microfilmed books projected on the ceiling, and his family—including his brother Peter Bellamy, who brought a typewriter so that John could dictate letters to friends and extended family members—visited him daily.
In February 1948, John developed a respiratory infection. His weakened lungs were unable to provide enough oxygen to his body, and he died on the morning of February 15, 1948. In a letter to her mother the next day, Natalie recounted how she and Marguerite had visited John the night before he died and had an engaging conversation covering family news and national events, such as the Fair Employment Practice Act. In retrospect, Natalie felt that John hadn't wanted them to leave because "he knew how uncertain the flame was, perhaps better than we."
The family had been assured early in John's illness that his medical treatments and rehabilitation costs would be covered by the March of Dimes, so they took great pride and comfort in the support of John's friends and the Cleveland community who gave almost $1,500 in memorial funds in John's name to the organization's local chapter.
A few days after John's death, Marguerite wrote her mother an account of John's funeral. In the letter, she reflected on how much John had meant to her and how daunting it was to face the loss of him.
I know I have been blest among women to have had my wonderful John for thirty-seven years--almost thirty-eight—never will I forget the elation of that day when he was born—I had my hands on Heaven—and he never let me down. He gave me of his friends—and of the music that was in him—and when the world crashed around me, he held it together until I could stand again. I cannot think what it is going to be like now that I cannot turn to him, but I have much to do to help his family and I loved him so that I can carry on for him. After the first dreadful weeks of his illness—when he seemed a little better, I had many happy hours with him and often when he suffered most he would say "Oh mother, I love you so." These things I will remember, and they will help me to go forward.
John was one of 2,140 Americans to die of polio in 1948. Jonas Salk developed his vaccine in 1952, and in 1955, the vaccine was licensed by the United States government and large-scale vaccinations began. By 1960, the Salk vaccine was largely replaced by Albert Sabin's vaccine. Due to the Salk and Sabin vaccines, the last case of polio to originate in the US occurred in 1979, and the Americas were declared polio free in 1994. Thanks to collections like that of the Stark family, we will always have a record of what a horrible disease polio is and a reminder of why we should be thankful that we no longer have to live in fear of an outbreak.
Find more information about the Stark, Bellamy, and Crouter families in the Stark family papers at the Schlesinger Library.