- The Polio Years in Texas: Battling a Terrifying Unknown
Wooten’s The Polio Years in Texas will be of use to historians of Texas as well as medical historians for its detailed exposition of archival materials from universities, hospitals, and medical societies across a large and diverse state. Wooten relies on already published histories (for example, those by Oshinsky, Paul, Rogers, and Smith) to provide the general narrative of polio in America: the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Warm Springs, the Elizabeth Kenny method of warming and stretching polio-affected limbs, the miseries of the iron lung, the astounding success of the March of Dimes, the vaccines of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the notorious Cutter incident that resulted in 149 cases of poliomyelitis, and the new realities of post-polio syndrome.1 Green intersperses these elements with original research to create two main lines of inquiry—the “Texas version” of America’s polio story (for example, Texas’s first iron lung, Texans writing to Roosevelt, and March of Dimes poster children from Texas) and the version of the story unique to Texas (such as contributions made by Houston and Galveston researchers to the Salk and Sabin field trials).
Strikingly, Texas seems to finish second in several of the contests discussed: The infection rates of Harris Country, including Houston, were exceeded only by those of Los Angeles County; the Gonzales Warm Springs Center was modeled on Warm Springs resort in Georgia; and Roosevelt’s nomination of Al Smith at the 1928 Democratic Convention in Houston came four years after his much more famous watershed moment nominating Smith at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York. Nevertheless, Wooten makes the case that Texas’ contribution to the polio story in America, though not entirely singular, is significant enough to merit its own full-length history.
Houston and its surrounding Harris County are focal points, as they indeed had numerous epidemics throughout the polio period, partly because [End Page 482] of the influx of oilmen and their myriad service providers during the early twentieth century and the vast numbers of servicemen who moved through the area during World War II. While the oil boom brought diverse and infectious populations, it also brought enormous wealth, which funded numerous world-class medical research and treatment facilities that played key roles in the polio struggle. Wooten singles out Houston’s Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center, the first center funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis; its dual mission was to improve survival and release rates for patients requiring respirator support and to improve the lives of those requiring permanent support following acute care. Southwestern, according to Wooten, led the way in consolidating respirator patients and their care providers into the nation’s first intensive care units and spearheaded rehabilitation techniques. Also, remarkably, “the admittance policy at Southwestern crossed the color line in addition to state boundaries” (114), and Wooten well delineates the race-blind policies that admirably distinguished this facility and others in Texas (including the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Dallas) during the polio period.
Regrettably, this book’s interdisciplinarity is diminished by its failure to consult sources in disability studies that would have provided the necessary corrective to Wooten’s notably outdated vocabulary. References to “handicapped” and “crippled” children abound, even outside descriptions of the mid-century context in which such language went unquestioned. More offensively, Wooten relies constantly on such disabling descriptors as “wheelchair-bound,” “respirator-dependent,” and “confined to an iron lung”; leading thinkers in disability studies called long ago for more active, accurate terminology (for example, “uses a wheel chair to get around” and “requires respirator support”). As disability theorists have shown, linguistic barriers turn an impairment into a disability as effectively as do physical and ideological barriers. Wooten’s limited, limiting terminology mars an otherwise worthwhile book.
1. David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York 2005); John Rodman Paul, A History of Poliomyelitis (New Haven, 1971); Naomi...