The COVID-19 pandemic devastates the world in 2020. Many other serious illnesses have swept different countries through the centuries. For example, Poliomyelitis epidemics affected much of the the world between 1938 and 1954. Several of these epidemics occurred in Western Australia.
Joan London’s beautifully written novel, The Golden Age provides an account of children who contracted poliomyelitis and their families. (You can read the full review here.)
The children who populate the novel live in a convalescent home called the Golden Age. A similar place existed in the 1950s in Leederville, an inner Perth suburb. Joan London describes the surrounding area in some detail.
Reading and reviewing the novel prompted my recollection of that time. Poliomyelitis epidemics influenced many aspects of life in my home town. They affected all of us deeply.
Poliomyelitis epidemics in Australia
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.
Sparsely populated at that time, Western Australia suffered a disproportionate number of cases. Everyone seemed to know someone who had contracted polio.
Like most other viral illness, polio causes fever, headache, sore throat and fatigue. It also causes neck stiffness and muscle soreness. The virus can invade a victim’s brain and spinal cord. When that happens, it can result in anything from minor paralysis to death.
Polio, once called ‘infantile paralysis’, also affects young adults in large numbers.
Poliomyelitis epidemics and Salk Vaccine
Widespread poliomyelitis epidemics ended, at least in affluent countries with the discovery and application of the Salk vaccine.
The vaccine was administered to whole populations, beginning in 1955. Since then, poliomyelitis epidemics have been almost eradicated worldwide. Pockets of the disease still exist although work continues to end the scourge completely.
As a seventeen-year-old trainee nurse in 1956, I did a three-month rotation at an adult infectious diseases hospital in Shenton Park (near Perth) 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. Many of them were paralysed. Some died.
Severely affected patients experienced widespread paralysis. They could no longer breathe by themselves. Ventilators and respirators of the future did not exist. Paralysed patients were nursed in ‘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.
This forced the patients’ lungs to contract and expel air. The release of pressure allowed the lungs to inflate.
Iron lungs have long since been replaced by modern ventilators.
In the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm one night, the electricity supply to the hospital cut out.
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.
During the ferocious storm I experienced, on-duty nurses raced outside to the verandah. There we pumped the crude bellows-like equipment to keep our patients alive. We worked hard physically, fuelled by the adrenaline circulating in our bodies.
Fear levels inside and out were high.
We knew and cared about those young men and women in the iron lungs. Their lives depended on us, humans, rather than ‘predictable’ machines to maintain the regular rhythm, sixteen times a minute, that mimicked breathing.
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.
Fear and victim-blaming
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.
Families of nurses refused to allow their daughters to visit or spend time with them.
At my mother’s insistence, I usually went home for my day-and-a-half off-duty break each week. However, during the epidemic she did not want to see me. She was afraid I might carry the virus from the Infectious Disease Hospital to my siblings and infect them.
Confined to the nurses quarters, we young nurses became adept at playing wheelchair basketball with the young men convalescing from earlier outbreaks of polio. Very few people played the game which later became an acclaimed Olympic team sport for men and women.
The boys showed little mercy to their competitors, male or female. We spent a lot of time on the ground after being spilled from our chairs by too vigorous bumps. Back we went to work, though, knees patched with sticky plaster under our grey lisle stockings
The health authorities erected the first buildings of the Infectious Disease Branch, an annexe of Royal Perth Hospital, on the Shenton Park site at the end of the nineteenth century. At the time, a smallpox epidemic threatened Western Australia. The IDB remained isolated in bushland from the rest of the community for many years.
It was also, tellingly, no more than a mile from Karrakatta Cemetery.
Nurses in the primitive apprenticeship system in place lived on site. At the IDB, we slept in barrack-like structures in the grounds .
Our bedroom doors opened onto the long verandas at the side which opened onto the bush. Many of us were scared. There’s a picture below of the nurses’ quarters before its demolition in 2017.
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 IDB became the Shenton Park Rehabilitation Centre after the poliomyelitis epidemics subsided. The Centre closed its doors in October, 2014. Soon a modern housing development will rise in its place.
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.
You can check one of my blogs about COVID-19 here.
This post updated 29 March 2020.