A pestilence that walketh in darkness

In 1917, World Book quoted this description of a mysterious disease that often led to death or paralysis. The illness mainly attacked children, so people called it infantile paralysis. Today, we know it as poliomyelitis, or polio.

The 1917 article was frightening, reflecting doctors’ limited understanding of polio a century ago. It said infantile paralysis was caused “by a special microbe, the nature of which is not fully understood.” The disease spread strangely—one member of a family might catch it, while the rest seemed untouched. A recent outbreak in 1916 had killed thousands, mostly children. Patients who survived could suffer complete paralysis of the limbs “within twelve hours.”

Parents spent summers—the usual season for polio outbreaks—in fear. That changed in the 1950’s, when the American research scientist Jonas E. Salk developed a vaccine to prevent polio. Grateful parents praised Salk as a national hero.

Today, the unknown no longer overshadows World Book’s “Poliomyelitis” article, which says polio is caused by a virus that may attack the brain and spinal cord. Polio’s spread had seemed random because many cases go unrecognized—they never progress beyond early symptoms, such as fever and headache. The “Virus” article explains why such a pattern may occur with viruses.

Polio is still not a disease to take lightly—no known drug can kill it or control its progress within the body. However, vaccines that prevent people from catching polio have nearly eliminated it in many parts of the world. The World Book Encyclopedia’s articles on the disease in 1917 and 2017 mirror one of the most dramatic medical success stories of the 1900’s.

(By the way, in case you were wondering, the edition of World Book published in 1917 did not have an article on Salk. He was born only three years earlier, in October 1914. He now, of course, has a World Book article.)



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