1946 St. J. Polio Quarantine

To the Editor:

Some nine years before the widespread rollout of Dr. Jonas Salk’s poliomyelitis vaccine, a polio outbreak occurred in Scale City that took the life of a 34-year-old man and afflicted a 7-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl in St. Johnsbury.

The response to the outbreak was forceful and swift as public health officer “Dr. John P. Tierney [on Tues. Sept. 24, 1946] ordered all [St. Johnsbury] graded and high schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, and bowling alleys closed for a period of three weeks due to infantile paralysis [polio] which has struck St. Johnsbury.” (“St. Johnsbury Polio Scare Closes Schools,” The Burlington Free Press, Wed. Sept. 25, 1946, at p. 2).

The ban lasted a week and on Wed. night Oct. 2, 1946, Dr. Tierney lifted the ban as “[m]otion picture houses resumed operations and tomorrow classes will get under way again in the public and Catholic schools. St. Johnsbury [A]cademy will not reopen until Monday [Oct. 7, 1946].” (“Polio Ban Is Lifted; Week-Old Restrictions on Public Meetings Off; Schools Open Today,” Rutland Daily Herald, Thur. Oct. 3, 1946, at p. 5).

Despite the Wednesday evening lifting of the polio quarantine, the “St. Johnsbury Academy-Littleton, N.H., High School football game which was to [have been] played [in St. Johnsbury on Sat. Oct. 5, 1946] has been cancelled at the request of the Littleton [High School officials] because of the recent polio epidemic [in Scale City].” (“St. Johnsbury Game Has Been Cancelled,” The Burlington Free Press, Sat. Oct. 5, 1946, at p. 14).

The autumn 1946 St. Johnsbury polio event was a small statistical segment of the many circa 1940s up through 1954 polio outbreaks and a precursor of the very serious 1949 and 1952 polio epidemics throughout America.

Christopher E. Ryan

Los Angeles, California


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