The summer without children

In 1950 a small Virginia town was ground zero for polio

Stores and theaters closed because people feared to venture out. Churches canceled services, and some Sunday School classes were held over the radio. Kids, the elderly and infirm were told to stay indoors for fear of getting sick.

This may sound like any American town during the Coronavirus scare of 2020, but it’s actually the town of Wytheville, Virginia in 1950, when it suffered one of the worst localized epidemics in American history.

Backdrop

During the first half of the twentieth century, the small mountain town of Wytheville was fast becoming a tourist destination, due in large part to its proximity to the halfway point between Roanoke to the north, Bristol to the south and the national forest to the west. The town is the home of Skeeter’s World-Famous Hot Dogs, in business since 1943 in the same building as the birthplace of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson.

Wytheville also was regrettably the site of the last lynching in Virginia. An African-American man, Raymond Bird, who had been arrested and charged in 1926 with having sex with a white woman, was broken out of jail by a group of white men, then shot multiple times and dragged miles behind a truck. The final indignity was his dead body hanged from a tree on a nearby road.

But despite its otherwise balmy reputation and fairly remote location along the old Route 11, in the summer of 1950 something inexplicable happened — people, especially children, started getting sick. Really sick. Then they started dying in record numbers.

Outbreak

The discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s curbed many infectious epidemics, including smallpox and yellow fever. But over a miserable nine-week period in the blistering summer of 1950, Wytheville made unwanted national news when it experienced the most concentrated outbreak of virulent polio anywhere in the United States. Rates of infection far surpassed all other cities in America, with over 200 new cases in a population of 5,500 and a startling 15 percent death rate. Wytheville residents were 100 times more likely to catch polio that summer than people anywhere else in America, where the death rate hovered around 4 percent.

No age, gender or class was spared by the outbreak as it affected mostly children, including the rich, poor, middle class, blacks, and whites. The effects on children especially made polio a horror during the post-war baby boom era, just as families shook off the anguish and shortages of World War II and looked ahead to middle-class homes and raising families. Like communism and the atomic bomb, American families feared polio for its stealth-like attacks on their newly-established “safe” institutions, such as their churches, schools, the community ballpark, and even their own backyard.

Genesis

The first to get sick was Johnny Seccafico, the 22-month old son of local baseball player Jimmy Seccafico. On the night of June 30, 1950, during the seventh inning of a game between the Wytheville Statesmen and the Wilkesboro (N.C.) Flashers, the announcer explained that Seccafico, was absent because his son, Johnny, was critically ill. Sympathetic fans passed a hat for the family, collecting $227.

Two days earlier, Johnny had come down with a sore throat and fever, so his mother, Lucille, took him to the Chitwood-Moore Clinic on Main Street. Suspecting nothing more than a cold, a doctor prescribed routine medication. A few days later, however, Johnny did not get better, and in fact began to shake, as though he was having convulsions or seizures. Starting to panic, Lucille took him back to the clinic, where the doctor gave Johnny a skin test. That test indicated that Johnny could have either spinal meningitis or polio.

An ambulance carried Johnny and Lucille 80 miles up the valley to Roanoke’s Memorial and Crippled Children’s Hospital, where a spinal tap confirmed Johnny indeed had polio.

Within a day or two, Johnny was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors said he was too sick for a Drinker Respirator, more commonly known as an iron lung, and besides, they had to save that device for a child who in their opinion had a chance of surviving. Although Johnny did survive, this epidemic was just getting started. Within days, 10-year-old Betty Jones got ill, as did her 7-year-old sister Imogene. Then 5-year-old Betty Cook fell sick, starting an avalanche of cases over the next two months.

Wytheville officials were clueless about where the crippling virus came from or how it spread. There was no pattern to the outbreak. A few suggested it was the wrath of God because of the town’s one liquor store. Some claimed it was in the water, others insisted it traveled in the mail.

By the second week of July, 15 cases had been verified in Wytheville and Wythe County. Three victims had died: a 20-year-old man, a 9-year-old boy, and a 5-month-old girl. WYVE radio announcers Sid Tear and Dickie Sanders both became infected, with Tear actually doing his radio show from his hospital bed.

At Roanoke Hospital nurses and doctors worked exhausting shifts as ambulances and makeshift hearses provided by a funeral home ran 24 hours between the hospitals. One Roanoke nurse, Betty Howell, reported in a 2002 Roanoke.com story that the ward was wall-to-wall cribs. “You had to move one crib to get to another,” she recalled. “In a semi-private room, there were anywhere from eight to 10 cribs.”

Whites only

Black children had it even worse — because of Jim Crow segregation, they were not admitted to the Roanoke Hospital, despite pleas from residents and the local press to waive their “whites only” rule. Repeatedly refusing to do so, sick blacks subsequently had to be driven 300 miles one-way to St. Philip Hospital in Richmond. One black child, Betty Cook, had been playing in her yard when she told her mom she felt dizzy. Her doctor put her in an ambulance for Roanoke and while in transit, called Memorial Hospital and asked if they would make an exception for a very ill black child. Their answer — absolutely not. So the ambulance continued to Richmond, “taking forever,” according to Betty’s mother.

Look Magazine later called that decision “medically inexcusable.”

Response

After years of building a reputation as a friendly tourist destination, Wytheville’s status suddenly was so tarnished that instead of stopping to visit, motorists in un-air-conditioned cars rolled up their windows, put handkerchiefs over their faces and sweated out that 3-hour drive down Route 11 between Roanoke and Bristol. Billboards were posted on highways and roads leading into town, informing travelers of the outbreak. “If you do not stop with us this trip,” the sign suggested, “we invite you to visit us on your next vacation.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. L. J. Roper and National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis consultant Dr. Albert Stiegman descended on the perplexed city to try to ascertain the source of the outbreak. They studied the water and sewage systems, and even recommended the spraying of DDT, not so much as to stop the spread but to give the appearance of doing something.

Residents tried everything to try to stem the infection, from bathing in Clorox and isopropyl alcohol to wearing bags around their necks filled with mountain remedies, such as garlic and onions. Many chose strict self-quarantine and simply cowered inside their homes, burning Sterno cans and formaldehyde candles in an attempt to cleanse the air. One family with six young children dumped a load of sand in their living room to give the children something to play with. A few others fled town, risking spreading the disease throughout Southwest Virginia.

Despite the precautions, the epidemic continued its onslaught as people, especially children, continued to fall ill. Funeral home director D.L. Barnett prepared for the worst by going to a casket company and buying every child’s coffin in stock.

PR disaster, then praise

Lurid rumors of panic, a mass exodus and emergency roadblocks around town baselessly indicated that the town was roiling in hysteria, but they were all untrue. In fact, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on July 30 that the town was not only under quarantine but remarkably calm, thanks to a “daily release of full factual information” to residents by Wythe and Pulaski County health officers and the residents’ refusal to succumb to alarm. Southwest Virginia Enterprise newspaper editor Jim Williams urged readers to “Get the Facts — Please Don’t Spread Rumors.” He even erected a large blackboard in front of the newspaper office where he recorded the daily count of new cases and the grim death totals, updating it every three hours 24 hours per day.

Wytheville Mayor R. William Arthur also urged people to get the facts as he was squeezed by both the medical emergency and the PR nightmare he inherited. He told an Associated Press reporter in December long after the outbreak had ended that he blamed bad press on persons “not in constant contact” with the epidemic who “hopped off a bus for half an hour and then issued a statement.”

By September the outbreak began easing, and since the town had attracted national attention, assistance started pouring in from all over. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis donated $32,000 to help cover hospital bills for affected families. Thirteen respirators were sent to Memorial Hospital in Roanoke. Nurses, doctors, and physical therapists arrived to augment the rural hospital’s overtaxed staff.

Finally, by October 2 the epidemic had eased enough for schools to open, and the town began slowly returning to normal.

Despite the unfavorable press during the epidemic, the town’s level-headed response when it ended ultimately received nationwide praise. The Washington Post called Wytheville “the town that kept its head.” A five-page spread in Look Magazine stated the town taught America a valuable lesson: don’t be afraid of polio.

While it is now understood that polio is spread by contact with human feces, no definitive cause of the Wytheville outbreak was ever determined, although it is believed that it may have been a combination of factors, including the baseball park, the swimming pool and ironically, its reputation as a tourist destination, with multiple high-traffic highways in and out.

Because of the Wytheville epidemic, Virginia in 1950 finished second only to Iowa in new polio cases.

Today the Thomas J. Boyd Museum in Wytheville chronicles the polio outbreak amid its many periods of town history.

Lee Hale, showing how he reads books in an iron lung

Aftermath

Many residents experienced post-polio syndrome years after the initial outbreak. One resident, Lee Hale, was forced into an iron lung as an adult and remained there full-time until his death 32 years later — a Guinness world record.

Delores Thompson had what was considered a “light case” of polio, yet she was in and out of an iron lung at her home in San Diego for 45 years.

Johnny Seccafico in 2002. Courtesy Roanoke.com

Johnny Seccafico, the child who was the first to be diagnosed with the disease in Wytheville, survived and earned BA and MA degrees from Seton Hall University as well as an MSW from Rutgers University. He completed all these degrees despite the fact he and his wheelchair often had to be carried up several flights of stairs by other students so he could attend classes. He studied from textbooks he could not even pick up and hold.

Johnny went into private practice in New Jersey for 40 years as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, dedicating his professional career to providing affordable mental health care to those with no means to pay for it.

That little boy who was not expected to survive in 1950 died March 4, 2019, age 70.

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Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net.

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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