The Polio Panic Of 1916 (Part I)
You could travel on any of 22 different roads and highways to enter North Hempstead town in 1916, and for most of that summer every one of them was guarded by deputized inspectors waving red flags, many with shotguns. Inspectors were at railroad stations and boat docks. The president of the Village of Sands Point took personal charge of shore patrols to guard against beach landings. They were looking for kids. Any child under the age of 16 was to be turned back, even if they were residents. Hempstead and Oyster Bay towns didn’t adopt absolute quarantines, and allowed in children with official Certificates of Health stating that they had been examined, were disease-free and lived in a disease-free neighborhood.
Americans had experienced large epidemics of various poxes, influenzas, fevers, measles and other diseases, but there was never a major outbreak of polio (poliomyelitis) before the 20th century. It was known that the disease was caused by a virus, but medical research had not established how it spread (mostly through contact with fecal matter) or how to treat it. At that time, polio killed a quarter of its victims, most of whom were children, and many others were left with disabling paralysis. The disease seemed to spread randomly, crossing neighborhoods and income levels, adding to public anxiety. When official announcement was made of a polio epidemic in Brooklyn on June 17, 1916, many panicked, and it radiated out across New York City and hundreds of towns and villages.
Late June was when many well-off residents from the city moved to their summer residences on Long Island. Even many middle-income city residents took vacations in the country, and almost every section of Nassau County was dotted with small rental houses, bungalows and cottages. Long Island’s local economy was largely built around the summer, when the population and business swelled.
From the start of the outbreak, state and city public health officials fell back on standard procedures that predated the latest bacteriological research. This emphasized cleaning up dirt and dust from the immediate area and the isolation of anyone suspected of being ill. Now, thousands of additional families took or sent children out of the city, not just to evade the spread of the illness but to escape any coming quarantine. Well-meaning civic groups urged city parents to get their children to the country or to the shore, but out of the city.
On July 7, the first case of polio in Nassau County was announced, a little girl in Glen Cove who had recently also visited Sea Cliff. Within three days, there were the first three deaths (two in Garden City Park, one in Farmingdale).
There was no Nassau County Health Department. The county’s entire public health budget amounted to just over $2,300, mostly to pay the 12 town Justices of the Peace fees for acting as local coroners. Each of the three town boards and each village board in the county’s 13 incorporated villages also sat as the local Board of Health. These boards each appointed a local physician to be a part-time Health Officer to supervise enforcement of local sanitation codes. Their week-to-week responsibilities typically included issuing employment certificates to young people and issuing permits to sell milk. Town Health Officers had a part-time assistant, mostly to help with paperwork. That was the entire formal apparatus of public health policy in a county with 116,000 year-round residents.
There were going to be 16 different immediate responses to any crisis.
The polio scare of 1916 touched every person and every activity in the county. By the end, there would be death threats, a public revolt and that night the county’s most famous citizen, The Colonel himself, strode into Oyster Bay Town Hall and took charge.
Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org