Poliomyelitis epidemics in Western Australia

Serious poliomyelitis epidemics swept the world between 1938 and 1954. Australia, and Western Australia in particular, were affected.

Cover of The Golden Age
Cover of The Golden Age

Joan London’s beautifully written novel, The Golden Age is an account of children who had contracted poliomyelitis and their families. (Review here.) The children who populate the novel are residents in a convalescent home called the Golden Age, which actually existed in Perth in the 1950s.

Reading the novel and reviewing it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 prompted me to examine some of my own memories of that time in Perth. The poliomyelitis epidemics influenced many aspects of life in my home town. Everyone seemed to know someone who had contracted polio.

According to some sources, in Australia between 1950 and 1954, there were around 12,000 cases of the disease. The death toll reached over 680. Sparcely populated at that time, Western Australia had a disproportionate incidence of the disease.

Poliomyelitis is a viral disease spread from person to person through the faecal-oral route. The virus can invade a person’s brain and spinal cord. It can cause anything from minor paralysis to death in the most severe cases.

Poliomyelitis epidemics were halted in affluent countries, with the discovery and application of the Salk vaccine. The vaccine was administered to whole populations, beginning in 1955. Poliomyelitis epidemics have been almost eradicated worldwide. Pockets of the disease still exist. Work to end the scourge completely continues.

Although poliomyelitis was once called ‘infantile paralysis’, it also affected young adults in large numbers. As a seventeen-year-old trainee nurse I did a three-month stint at an adult infectious diseases hospital  at the height of the last of the polio epidemics.

Those three months may well have been the most horrific part of my nursing training.

We young nurses were responsible for the care of people our own  age and slightly older who were in so called ‘iron lungs’.These were steel tanks which enclosed the patient’s body, leaving only his or her head outside.  Machinery on the outside of the building caused pressure to be built up inside each of the tanks and released. This forced the patients’ lungs to contract and expand. Iron lungs have long since  been  replaced by modern ventilators.

Image of iron lung similar to those in use during poliomyelitis epidemics in Australia
Image of iron lung similar to those in use during poliomyelitis epidemics in Australia

In the middle of a terrifying electrical storm one night, the electricity was cut. Joan London writes about ‘nurses in shortie pyjamas’ who came from the nurses quarters nearby to keep the iron lungs working, and this may well have happened on some occasions..

My own experience however, was that some on-duty nurses  were sent outside the ward. There we manually pumped the  crude bellows-like equipment that would keep our patients alive for as long as we were needed.

Our patients were young men and women we knew intimately and cared about. Their lives depended on us, humans,  rather than reliable, predictable machines  to maintain the regular rhythm, sixteen times a minute, that mimicked breathing. Fear levels inside and out were high.

The storm raged around us. The rain beat in on the verandah.

By the time the petrol fired generator had been started and begun to generate a reliable source of electricity, we were soaked to the skin and exhausted with the physical and emotional effort.  But of course we dried ourselves off as well as we could, and continued our shifts. We’d done nothing more than what was expected of us.

The poliomyelitis epidemics created enormous fear in the community. People affected by the disease and their families were looked down on as somehow responsible for their plight. Victim-blaming was rife.

Many families of nurses refused to allow their daughters (trainee nurses were women!) to visit or spend time with them. My mother, who usually insisted I went home for my day-and-a-half off duty each week, said she would prefer not  to see me for the three months I worked at the Infectious Disease Branch of Royal Perth Hospital. She was afraid I might carry the virus to my siblings and infect them.

Confined to the nurses quarters, like many other nurses, I became adept at playing wheelchair basketball with the young men who were convalescing from earlier outbreaks of polio. They showed little mercy to their competitors, male or female. We spent a lot of time on the ground after being spilled from a chair by too vigorous bumps. We went to work patched up with sticky plaster over our wounded knees and elbows.

An annex of Royal Perth Hospital, the  Infectious Disease Branch was built in bush-land in Shenton Park. Built at the end of the nineteenth century when a smallpox epidemic hit Western Australia, the IDB was isolated from other habitation. It was also, tellingly,no more than half a mile from Karrakatta Cemetery.

We trainee nurses slept in barrack-like out-buildings in the grounds of the IDB. Our bedroom doors opened onto the long verandas at the side facing the bush which many of us found scary. There may have been locks on the doors. I don’t remember. But I imagine I wasn’t the only young nurse to return to her room late at night, tired after a full day’s work to find a drunken stranger lying on her bed.

Probably, like me, they didn’t know if there was an authority to which they could complain. Perhaps, like me, they also spent the night on the floor of the room of a colleague before returning to work early the next morning.

The Infectious Disease Branch of Royal Perth Hospital became the Shenton Park Rehabilitation Centre after the poliomyelitis epidemics subsided. The Centre was closed in October, 2014. No doubt the ramshackle buildings will soon be demolished to make way for another housing estate.

Shenton Park, once the site of a group of huts that struck terror into the people of Perth has been transformed into fashionable inner city suburb.

Badge for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015
Badge for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

Thank you for visiting my blog. Your comments are eagerly awaited.

12 replies on “Poliomyelitis epidemics in Western Australia”

  1. Maureen
    Peter sent me the link to your blog as he knows my history.
    I was 15 when I contracted polio in Sydney in 1950 – the last major epidemic there before the Salk vaccine became available. There, all polios were sent to the Coast Hospital which became heavily overloaded with beds head-to-foot along the corridors because the wards were overflowing.
    At that time there were some 360-odd of us in the hospital. I was one of the lucky ones who did not need artificial breathing, although, among many other problems, it has left the left side of my throat badly affected, including the vocal chord muscles.
    The WA Post Polio people have published a book on the WA history of Polio that, if you do not have it, you would probably find interesting.
    If you are interested, send me your email address and I will send you a 6-page PDF of my story called a “Brief History of an Old Polio”.
    My one objection to all these books is the reference to polio being “eradicated”. This should say controlled, as I do not believe any disease that comes from nature can be eradicated. It is only immunisation that keeps it at bay.

    1. Hello, Stuart. How nice to hear from a friend of Peter (Stone). Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. The book by Joan London, ‘The Golden Age’ is a really interesting novel which you might enjoy. I can imaging the Coast Hospital overflowing with beds. IDB was pretty chock-a-block too, but much smaller than 360 beds. I can’t help wondering what it must have been like as a fifteen year old to contract polio. That is such an important developmental stage for a young person. It is the time they are discovering all sorts of things about themselves, wondering if they are attractive to the opposite sex, often interested in sport, deciding on their future work. To become ill and dependent must be devastating.

      Yes, it is nonsense to talk about polio being eradicated, although it occurs rarely in about four of the six World Health Organisation regions. It is still endemic in a number of Third World countries. WHO and some partner organisations which include Rotary International and the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation work hard to control it there, too.

      I would love to read your PDF of your story, ‘A Brief History of an Old Polio’. my email address is mhelen at iinet dot net dot au I have seen the WA History of Polio, but I do not have a copy.
      Thank you again for your comment.

  2. Hi,

    Thank you for an interesting post. I was born in Western Australia in 1951 and contracted Polio when I was 15 months old. Because of my age at the time I can only remember flashes of my treatment. From my mother I found out I was 18 months in hospital and that most of that time I was in Golden Age. I can remember my sister waving from out side a window and being in a ward with lots of cots. I was told I used to hide my toys. My Mum told me that she was only allowed to visit once a month (because more visits would upset us children). This had a profound affect on all our family bonding. One little girl was later allowed to come out to visit with us as she came from a country family.

    I’m not sure about most dates and treatments in the infectious period as I was unable to obtain my medical records even though my G.P. tried.

    Thanks again for filling in some of our history.

    Cheers Bobbie Qld Australia

    1. Hello, Bobbie
      Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post about the polio epidemics in Western Australia. I’m glad the post filled in some of your family’s history. The effects of your illness must have been devastating for all of you, but especially for you and your mother. I worked for a short time at PMH when parents were only allowed to visit their children for a few hours on Sunday. That was bad enough. I found the experience heart-breaking. I am curious if you recovered completely from the polio? Joan London’s book, ‘The Golden Age’ was published last year, and you might find it very interesting. It is a novel, and deals with older children than you were when you were there, but it is very interesting. I wrote a blog about it. Here is the link. https://maureenhelen.com/golden-age-joan-london-review/

      I’d be interested to read what you think about the book. Best wishes, Maureen Helen

  3. Hi, I was a young nurse in WA in 1973 at the Government School of Nursing.
    My training in the Polio Epidemic came when Sister Judith Smart wheeled herself into our class on Communicable Diseases. She was nursing at the time of the epidemic and had “stayed” to nurse her patients, when many had not.
    Her strength, ethics, and courage has had an enormously profound effect on me.
    I nursed Geriatric and Terminal patients for 13 years.
    Now as I sit and watch in America the rise again of measles, I am sad for the parents who don’t vaccinate their children…God bless you.

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog, and especially for taking time to comment, Pat. I never met Sister Smart. What a wonderful lesson that must have been for young nurses, to see her still working after being stricken by Poliomyelitis. I too feel very sad for parents who don’t vaccinate their children. As a great-grandmother of tiny, vulnerable children, I also feel very angry and frustrated that we know how lives can be saved yet some people refuse to take advantage of preventative measures that can save lives.

      Have you read Joan London’s book, ‘The Golden Age’? You might enjoy it.

  4. Thank you Maureen for your blog. I spent a couple of months at the IDB in 1954 as a 15 year old: my parents had nursed me through the early weeks of the disease, with the help of Dr Alec Jolly our G.P.. The IDB was an important part of my growing up: the physios were quite remarkable – and well ahead of most in the world in their rigorous insistence on the (painful) stretching, and then strengthening, of muscles; the nurses, some not much older than I was, were very caring and – importantly- amusing. But it was my fellow patients who taught me most about life, and how to cope with a massive set-back with courage, I was fortunate that I already knew Geoff Bell, who was two years ahead of me at Mod., and who contracted polio in his first weeks of an engineering degree at UWA. Geoff was much worse affected by polio than I was, but he retained his sense of humour: I well remember the fun we had in our wheelchairs as we raced along the corridors. The older men, including a bus driver,and business-men, accepted the pain of the stretching – though not without complaint.
    We were all conscious that though we were in trouble, there were others who were worse-off: especially the paraplegic and quadriplegic patients who shared our building.
    And, because of the nature of treatment for polio, the value of perseverance was made abundantly clear.

    1. Hello, Lance. Thank you for taking time to comment on my post about my experiences as a nurse at IDB in the late 1950s. We nurses used to grumble about you young blokes who made what we thought our difficult lives even more difficult. But in hindsight, we were a pretty selfish lot, on the whole. I too remember with gratitude the lessons I learned from the patients with polio in those days. And I am also grateful for the lessons I learned from the young men who dealt with so much courage with the horrible disease that is polio. I hope you have made a full recovery and that life treats you well. Thank you again for your comments.

  5. I was a British trained nurse, but nursed at Royal Perth and Shenton Park, in 1956/57. I admired the nurses who nursed, so caringly, the few remaining polio patients. They were some of the best nurses around. Judy (jvmcashel@hotmail.com)

    1. Thanks for your kind comments about the nurses at RPH and Shenton Park, especially in 1956/7, when I was a very junior nurse. It sounds as if you have some fond memories of your nursing days in Australia. Where do you live now?

  6. Dear Maureen,

    Thanks for your article about the polio disease in WA. I am actually reading the book The Golden Age now and quite like it.

    I am quite interested in the Golden Age Convalescent Hospital which existed between 1949-1959 in Perth so not sure you have any pictures of it?


    1. Hi Ivy Li, Thank you for taking time to tell me you enjoyed my article. I loved The Golden Age. No, I am sorry, I don’t have pictures of the actual hospital. I wonder if the Battye Library in Perth might be able to help? They have an amazing collection of old photos of Perth. Here is there website address: slwa.wa.gov.au/find/wa_information/battye_library

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