The message was so important that it was repeated twice above the fold.
The February 8, 1928, issue of The Evergreen exclaimed on both sides of the masthead, “All college entertainment features, athletic contests and social events have been cancelled until further notice is given as a precaution against the spread of infantile paralysis.”
Infantile paralysis is an old synonym for poliomyelitis, or polio, a viral disease that causes muscle pain, weakness, stiffness, and paralysis. At one time, it was among the most feared diseases in the United States.
In early 1928, a student at Washington State College died from the disease, and the college banned all activities as a precaution against its spread. A series of short articles in The Evergreen followed the lockdown, which, according to University archivist Mark O’English, has otherwise become “lost history.”
O’English says, “I have never seen this mentioned outside these Evergreen articles—no oral histories, no interviews, no nothing. I suppose President Holland’s papers are a possibility, but if so it is not obvious at a glance.”
Still, O’English says, “there’s something in it to me which resonates today, relevant to both our current campus reaction to disease and to how much we now take for granted something like the polio vaccine and hence other vaccinations. … Their obvious fear of the disease (is) seen through the fact that one student comes down with this, dies close to immediately, and the whole campus drops flat and covers.”
According to the Wednesday, February 8, 1928, issue of The Evergreen, John Chaplin, a sophomore architectural engineering student from Olympia, died in the campus hospital at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7, after first becoming ill that Sunday. No other cases were discovered.
“Although only one case has developed, every precaution has been taken by the authorities of the college to prevent any spread of paralysis among students,” the story reported. “The Vachel Lindsay Stoddard King recital and the Washington-W. S. C. basketball game have been called off and all social events of any sort have been postponed for at least a period of two weeks. It has also been requested by President E. O. Holland that all students refrain from gathering in large groups for any reason whatsoever.”
The headline on the story: “Infantile paralysis fear places ban on activities.”
All parties and teas were postponed, and the men’s and women’s glee club tour of twelve towns was canceled. Forty-two students and three faculty members were slated to travel and perform from Colfax and Spokane to Wenatchee and more.
Two days after the initial story and three days after Chaplin’s death, The Evergreen featured Myrtle Mount, head nurse at the campus hospital. “If anyone is thinking of getting sick because it is the vogue, he had better postpone it for a while or we’ll put him on the roof,” Mount told the student newspaper. At that time, the hospital was full. “Two students have scarlet fever, two more are sick with measles, two have a slight touch of the ‘flu’ and one is confined because of an infected leg,” the paper explained.
The same issue also laid out a series of suggestions for keeping well, including “no over-night visiting,” “no picture shows,” “no church or Sunday school,” “no committee meetings,” “no out of-town leaves except to go to own home (This includes trips to Moscow, etc.),” “exercise in open air,” “sleep nine hours if possible,” and “do not diet for reducing purposes.”
Other than a few sentences, The Evergreen articles don’t give too many details about Chaplin. “Thinking it to be a touch of influenza, he treated himself and went to bed,” the February 8 issue reported. “Monday morning, feeling worse than before, Chaplin called Dr. (L.G.) Kimzey, who immediately took the boy to the hospital. Tuesday afternoon he died.”
Chaplin’s four roommates were “in strict quarantine. Fearing that the news might reach their parents and cause undue worry, the fellows requested that their names be withheld from any stories concerning the case. None of them has any symptoms of the disease as yet.”
Restrictions were scheduled to be lifted February 20. The February 27 Evergreen noted campus social activities were “again in full sway.”
But the threat of polio in the United States wouldn’t lift for decades.
The first polio epidemic in America took place in 1894 with 18 deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis. A 1916 outbreak saw some 27,000 cases across the country and killed about 6,000 people nationwide. Movie theaters were closed. Meetings and other public gatherings were called off. Children were warned not to drink from water fountains. People were also encouraged to avoid swimming pools, beaches, and amusement parks. From that year onward and until a vaccine was widely available, a polio epidemic appeared each summer somewhere in the United States. Late summer became “polio season,” with the most serious outbreaks occurring in the 1940s and 1950s.
Following Jonas Salk’s vaccine, the incidence of polio in America decreased from 13.9 cases per 100,000 in 1954 to 0.8 cases per 100,000 in 1961. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated in the United States. But travelers have brought the disease into the country—the last time in 1993.
In April 1955, when Salk’s vaccine was adopted throughout the country, famed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (’30 Comm.) asked Salk who owned the patent to the vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” the scientist famously replied. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”