Growing Up in the Time of Polio
Updated: Sep 7
Guest Contributor - J. Scott Uttley, PhD
Former Royersford resident, J. Scott Uttley, contributed the following blog post.
During the years that I lived in and later visited my step-grandfather and grandmother Shappell’s house in Royersford at 364-366 Main Street, they owned a bungalow that sat at the back of the lot along Myrtle Alley.
In the early 1950s, they rented the bungalow to the Dottie and Donald Kunkle family. Mr. Kunkle was given charge of the backyard, I guess as a part of his rental obligation. He mowed the grass and trimmed the rose bushes and hedges and otherwise maintained the yard year-round, snow removal included. Their only child, Donny, was a very athletic guy four years my senior. I recall the pride with which his father described Donny’s achievements on community ball fields. I often saw the two of them playing catch (baseball and football) in the backyard. To me, given his size, it was wise to know where he was when I ventured alone out to my backyard. Of course, he knew this, and also that his family was renting from my family, thus he often made some attempt to treat me well. The other times, when he didn’t, I honed my skill at the ancient art of bully avoidance.
Nonetheless, lacking an older brother, it was Donny (along with my cousin Eddie Snell) that schooled me on all of the basic things that a growing boy needed to know to muster approval among his peers. This included instruction in baseball cards, which started me on a long road of collecting “stuff” throughout my childhood and adolescent years. He was particularly proud of his set of 1950 Tops cards of the Philadelphia Phillies, the “Whiz kids”, and the opposing dreaded New York Yankees that humbled the Phils in the 50 World Series, 4 games to zip. I would bet that his dad actually took him to what was then called Shibe Park for the series.
His dad took special delight in showing off Donny’s apparent encyclopedic knowledge of sports figures and automobile trivia. On occasion, we would sit on my narrow front porch at 364 Main Street, located in the middle of the town’s business district, and watch the traffic flow up and down the Main Street hill. Donny seemed to know the year and model of every car that he saw, including the size of the engine, horsepower, and details about the manufacturer.
Sometime during the fall of 1954, a rumor circulated that he was playing football down on Second Avenue, probably in Victory Park, and began to feel numbing in his extremities. He was rushed to a hospital and didn’t come home until many months later. The great mystery that year was “what happened to Donny?” His parents denied it, but everyone assumed it was Polio.
Fundamentalist denominations, with their preoccupation with hell and sin, were pretty good at instilling fear into us during the 1950s. School systems also did a reasonably good job of scaring us with atomic bomb drills and government instructions about hiding face down in the gutter if perchance we saw a mushroom cloud over our shoulders while walking on a sidewalk. But in the 1950s, for children nothing struck the primordial fear button more than the specter of polio. The images in Life Magazine and charity brochures of kids in iron lungs and the sight of a few crippled kids moving around in our own town on crutches got our attention big time. So, a rumor of someone in town or in a nearby community having contracted polio sent everyone - parents and children alike - into panic mode.
During the 20th century, the United States was ground-zero for polio. More cases were detected here and more deaths registered here than anywhere else in the world. The increasing frequency of polio during the first half of the century culminated in 1952 with fifty-nine thousand cases of the paralytic variety and three thousand deaths. By comparison with other diseases, polio was not the worst killer. For example, in 1950, thirty-four thousand died of tuberculosis and in 1957, sixty-two thousand people died from influenza. The fear generated by polio was due to its tendency to attack healthy children and young people and to leave a trail of battered bodies. But more generally, the fear was generated by the unknown. The medical establishment did not know how it was transmitted and had no cure (none exists to this day). Bewildered public health officials did their best to contain or quarantine infected individuals, but all suggestions were at best educated guesswork and at worst added to the fear quotient. Why did this disease seem to only affect industrialized countries with good sanitation? Why did quarantines not really do anything to stem the epidemic? Why did the disease seem to arise in the late 1800s out of nowhere?
We now know much about the origin and transmission of the disease that was not known during the epidemic years. Health researchers think that it is transmitted through the fecal-oral route, so that better hand washing hygiene would have likely prevented many cases in the early days. It is thought that polio has always been around, living in feces and contaminating the food and water supply, but that young children in undeveloped countries are exposed to it from birth (paralysis is apparently rare in babies) and so have some immunization by the time they reach an age of increased susceptibility. So, in a weird way, our better sanitation made us more vulnerable.
Surprisingly, the polio infection rate was quite high but, according to the Mayo Clinic, less than 1% developed paralytic symptoms. Many infected people never got sick and for those that did the symptoms were akin to a mild flu. Like Covid-19, the incubation period was typically a week or more, so that people could be very infectious before manifesting any symptoms. But more importantly, researchers now know that all of those that contracted the poliovirus, sick or not, were very likely contagious for weeks after the initial infection. So, all of the elaborate and heroic attempts to quarantine the disease were doomed to failure from the start. The very people walking around seemingly healthy could have been unknowingly spreading the disease, especially those in the food preparation business. Social distancing was not employed with the seemingly healthy mass population, but some parents did keep their children under tighter controls. I remember being forbidden to go swimming at Lakeview Park as a precaution.
It is now known that once the poliovirus enters the body, it multiplies in the intestinal tract and throat. In the 1940s and into the 1950s, just when incidences of the disease were increasing annually, tonsillectomies were becoming commonplace and seen by the medical community as a useful prophylactic tool to prevent chronic sore throat illnesses. An unknown consequence of the proliferation of this procedure was the depression of the auto-immune system and a physical trauma to the part of the body where the virus was likely to take up residence; hence, an increased risk of the poliovirus running rampant through the body’s defenses. Today, the identified risk factors include dental and throat surgery, compromised immune system, and injury or strenuous physical exercise after exposure to the virus. I cannot know if my erstwhile friend Donny had recent dental or tonsil surgery before he contracted paralytic polio, but for sure he was very active physically.
After Donny returned home from the hospital, I avoided going to visit him for quite some time but finally caved in when his mother very directly asked me to do so. He was lying on a hospice bed in the living room and was unrecognizable. His limbs were atrophied and he looked ghostly white. I was terrified. I am not sure he knew that I was even there. He was alternately mumbling incoherently and then shrieking about the heat. He died a few weeks later in September of 1955 at the age of 14. His Death Certificate cited respiratory paralysis as the proximate cause of death. He and his parents are buried in Fernwood.
As a footnote to the above, my grandmother grew up in South Philadelphia and lived there with her first husband; he died in October of 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. When I was a child, we often took the train to Center City to shop. From time to time as the train passed slowly through the tenements of North Philadelphia on the way to the Reading Terminal, she would reminisce about surviving the epidemic. She was especially graphic about her eye witnessing corpses of flu victims that people would deposit on the curb of the street. She said eventually the city would send carts by and remove the bodies to mass burial grounds – with no funerals, no last rites. They seemed like interesting stories of a time long ago that had no relevance to me until the storm of polio arrived and randomly took young victims like Donny Kunkle.
J. Scott Uttley was born in Pottstown in 1945 and moved to Royersford in the spring of 1948 to live with his grandmother, Ann Shappell, at 364 Main Street. Uttley was the 4th generation of his family to live in town. His great-grandmother, Rachel Genevieve Hays, was in the first graduating class of Royersford High School, (1889). Uttley's grandfather, Mortimer Snell, and his mother, Phyllis Snell, were both raised in Royersford and graduated from Royersford High School, (1915 and 1943, respectively). In addition, in the early 1920's Uttley's grandmother's Lithuanian parents owned an orchard somewhere between the intersection of Lewis and Vaughn Roads and Mingo Creek. Uttley attended school in Royersford, kindergarten through second grade. In August of 1953, his family moved to North Coventry, where he graduated in1963 from Owen J. Roberts High School. Despite the move, Uttley was living part-time in Royersford until September 1958, spending his weekends and summers on Main Street and Mrytle Alley, helping his grandmother with chores and, after 1955, waiting on customers in the business.
In 1967 Uttley married Hari Wendy Werner, a 1964 graduate of Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, He received a BA from Temple University in 1967, and MA from Indiana University in 1969, and a PhD in Geology from Ohio State University in 1974. Uttley taught full-time Geology and Astronomy courses at Jersey City State College from 1970-72. Scott and Hari have lived in Colorado with their four sons since 1975, with the exception of a 3-year work assignment with the Department of Energy in California. By profession, Uttley is an exploration and reservoir geologist in the petroleum industry. He also served as the CEO of a NASDAQ-listed exploration company based in Calgary and Denver from 1980 to 1985. For the last 35 years, most of his work has been on optimizing oil and gas recovery from existing fields in Latin America, Canada, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. In more recent years Uttley has also worked on many domestic Gas Storage projects.
Scott and Hari live on the Ken Caryl Ranch along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at the southwest margin of the Denver metro area. Scott can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.