An American child in an iron lung, January 1955 (Photo: Getty)
An American child in an iron lung, January 1955 (Photo: Getty)

SocietyNovember 16, 2020

The virus that stalked children: Remembering New Zealand’s polio years

An American child in an iron lung, January 1955 (Photo: Getty)
An American child in an iron lung, January 1955 (Photo: Getty)

David Hill remembers his childhood friend Doug, who contracted polio a decade before the vaccine became available.

As summer approached, New Zealand braced itself for a return of the virus. Nearly 1,000 people had fallen ill in the previous wave. Fifty-seven had died. There was no vaccine; no cure. Now hospitals and families waited for what summer might bring.

I’m not talking Covid-19. This was polio, 70 years ago. It struck at the spinal cord and nervous system, leaving people – especially children, who were its major victims – with paralysed, atrophying limbs. Healthy kids were crippled almost overnight.

Like this year’s virus, the polio epidemics that intermittently swept New Zealand up to the mid-1950s often brought life-threatening respiratory problems as well. Those whose breathing was affected were placed in the boiler-shaped, pressurised metal tanks called iron lungs, lying there week after week, only their heads protruding. 

Taranaki’s June Opie wrote about it in Over My Dead Body. She survived, though partly crippled, and called herself lucky. Some kids in the iron lungs choked to death as they tried to swallow.

My friend Doug contracted polio in the 1947 epidemic, when he was seven. He’d gone to bed one night with a headache and temperature. When he tried to get up next morning, his left leg wouldn’t support him, and he collapsed on the floor. My mum said that when Doug’s mother rushed in and found him, you could hear her scream from 10 houses away. 

She screamed because every parent knew and feared polio’s signs: that sudden weakening and/or paralysis of limbs; the fever and challenged breathing. Up till Joseph Salk’s miraculous vaccine of 1955, terror of the virus stalked all New Zealand families. 

Our government then responded as it did in 2020, with distancing and isolation. All victims under 16 were quarantined for a fortnight. So was anyone whose work brought them into contact with children. Schools closed; kids were banned from some motor camps. Up in Auckland, authorities warned against swimming in the “probably infected” Waitematā and Manukau Harbours. 

And Doug spent six months of 1947-8 in hospital.

The polio vaccine came into use in 1955. This photo shows a British child being vaccinated on 26th May 1956 (Photo: Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My memories of him start from a couple of years later, when he was on his slow course to recovery. He was sturdy, sandy-haired, dressed in the 1950s boys’ uniform of grey serge shorts, Fair Isle jerseys knitted by his mother, socks and sand shoes. 

Doug’s left sand shoe was smaller than his right one. His mother used to grumble about the cost of buying two pairs, but you could tell from the way she looked at her son that she’d have bought every shoe in the shop if it would make him well again.

His left leg was skinny and waxy-looking, encased from foot to thigh in clumsy metal-and-wire calipers. He had to swing the leg in a half-circle to take a step. He moved like a robot; I told him so, and he was pleased.

His left arm was skinny, too; he had to do everything right-handed. And he did everything: bowled right-handed in our tennis ball and kerosene-tin-wickets games of cricket; wrestled right-armed as we imitated Lofty Blomfeld in the playground; threw pine-cone grenades right-handed as we routed Japanese or Nazi armies in the pine plantation.

Like June Opie, Doug reckoned he was lucky. His whole left side from shoulder to foot was afflicted. Nerve connections stopped working properly; impulses to muscles couldn’t get through. His left leg and arm began to wither. But he could breathe, move, play games, be a boy.

He’d contracted the illness in winter. His mother blamed herself, according to my own mum’s report. She’d relaxed after the summer, which was when most cases appeared. Did sunstroke set it off? We kids had to wear sunhats with irritating flaps covering the backs of our necks, just in case. 

Did it come from water? Swimming baths were sometimes closed, which infuriated us. Was it contagious? That was why schools occasionally closed, too, which didn’t infuriate us at all. 

Doug spent his first two hospital months in the isolation ward, his parents gazing at him through the window. Then came another two months of bed rest, with massage and baths of warm water, to relax the affected limbs. He hated the hospital food: “We used to chuck it out the window when the nurses weren’t looking. The flowers in the flower bed all died!” 

After that were long weeks of exercise in the clumsy, chafing, pre-plastic calipers, limping round and round a hospital room while holding onto a wall bar, then up and down steps gripping a rail. 

As I say, I didn’t really know Doug till he came out of hospital and appeared in my world. My parents welcomed him. A few families wouldn’t let him into their houses, in case he carried “infection”. 

I remember how his mother kept watching him and trying not to show it; how she cried out once when he fell, reaching for a marble during a game in our backyard. 

To me, Doug was just a friend with a funny leg. I felt a bit jealous of him sometimes: the attention he got; the visits from a hospital masseuse (the ideas of Australian Sister Kenny, stressing stimulation and exercise, had caught on in New Zealand, and Doug’s crook leg probably had to do more than a lot of our healthy ones). And I felt really jealous when he had days off school to travel to the city and get new calipers fitted.

Those calipers fascinated the rest of us. We begged to try them on, and Doug was happy to oblige – where his mother couldn’t see him. He laughed as we fell flat at the first step. Later on, he got crafty, and charged us three Conversation Lollies (tasteless, pastel things inscribed “You Are My Heart’s Desire……Smile A While”) for a turn.

Doug’s family moved away when he was about 11. By then, he was able to bike, and to walk short distances without the calipers. He swam in the town baths, ducking us as often we ducked him.

Decades later, I put him in a children’s novel I wrote, called Enemy Camp. It’s set in Featherston during WW2, and focuses on a boy whose father is a guard at the POW camp just outside town. It builds to the terrible confrontation of Feb 25, 1943, when hundreds of Japanese prisoners charged their captors. Inside two minutes, some 90 of them were shot dead.

In the book, I called my friend Clarry. Like Doug, Clarry has been afflicted by polio when little; wears calipers on his legs. (I used writer’s licence, and moved the dates several years back in time.) 

Again, like Doug, he’s gutsy, determined, mischievous, has the same wicked sense of humour as my real-life friend, making guards and prisoners laugh even as they recognise his courage. And he has a mother who watches him with her breath held wherever he goes, whenever he shows the least sign of tiredness or headache.

I lost touch with Doug after a few letters. I’ve no idea what became of him. The last confirmed case of polio in New Zealand was over 40 years ago, in 1977, but every time I hear the word virus”, I picture my friend. 

I hope he never had to face Post Polio Syndrome, that cruel return of the disease in middle age or later, which starts to erode Hollis Prime in Maurice Gee’s terrific Ellie and the Shadow Man

Muscle failure and partial paralysis can reappear in PPS – just as organ damage and heart problems may be long-term issues from Covid-19. Doug and other brave kids like him deserved much happier returns.

Keep going!