Epidemic at 30,000 feet: Historical Detachment during a Pandemic

A smiling girl stands on a path, wearing a long white dress. She has one foot in a cast and is using crutches.

Oral History Participant Stephanie Stirling recovers from her post-polio syndrome related foot surgery in 1956. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Stirling.

Tyler Britz

For the past 2 years, I have been living through a pandemic, while researching a historical epidemic. In mid-2020, I had just finished up my third year of undergraduate studies at Wilfrid Laurier University when Dr. Tarah Brookfield recruited me into an undergraduate research project. The idea was to interview the generation that experienced the last major outbreak of polio and compare their experiences to COVID, as they would belong to the highest at-risk population of both diseases. With that goal, myself and three classmates (Lillia Dockree, Delores Maas, and Steve Parr) collected oral histories from current or former residents of our community of Brantford, Ontario, and the surrounding Brant County. We then turned the research into a digital exhibit for the Wilfrid Laurier Archives. I now work as an RA to continue our research for an academic article.

Our work so far has resulted in a detailed local history of polio. Brantford, like most Canadian towns and surrounding rural communities, faced almost annual outbreaks of polio in late summer/early fall. It caused mild to severe illness, death, and disability, mainly in children or young adults. Beginning with the 1910 outbreak, local, provincial, national, and international cases of polio received considerable media coverage in the Brantford Expositor. After Salk’s 1955 vaccine, polio waned as a threat until a 1978 outbreak, caused by anti-vaccine sentiment and slipping uptake in vaccine boosters, caused panic when cases were discovered in nearby Oxford County. Our research focuses on the evolving public health policy, medical treatments, and vaccine rhetoric, as well as the personal experiences of those who lived through or contracted polio, particularly as children.

Without a doubt, researching a public health crisis at 30,000 feet while living one at 1000 feet, impacted the clarity of my historical lens. From the COVID-restrictions impacting our research capabilities to the temptation to see COVID parallels in everything polio by 2022, it has been challenging to stay objective. Furthermore, it has been emotionally draining to track polio cases and deaths and read/hear about the suffering of others, while living through a similar macabre reality. However, my awareness of these challenges prompted new research questions and my emotional investment kept me focused during the drudgeries of remote classes.

Not being able to meet or interview our participants was an obstacle. In the first year of COVID, my university prohibited in person research, especially with vulnerable populations. This meant we were restricted to remote recruitment and interviews via phones or Microsoft Teams video calls, the latter of which none of our senior-citizen interviewees had experience with. With the campus closed, I made the calls from my apartment, a variable cellular dead zone. Fear of a call dropping was combined with my nervousness of basically cold calling a stranger to ask them about a potentially traumatic past, during a current troubling time. Yet my participants tended to graciously understand the situation and as our ethics agreement mandated, we rightfully allowed participants to back at out anytime and gave them final editing access to the transcript. My academic interest in their lives and the shared experience of living through COVID quickly stymied any nerves as it also heightened my emotional reaction to their stories.

One participant, Stephanie Stirling, contracted polio at age five in the mid -1940s. Her memories focused on the lengthy time she spent at the children’s hospital in Hamilton receiving the hot-pack Sister Kenny treatments for her paralysis. She was not allowed to receive visitors and was essentially uninformed about her diagnosis – norms for child patients at the time. “They did a lumbar puncture on me,” she recalled, “and then the next day, they sent me off to Hamilton to be quarantined, and I had no idea what was happening.” Stirling, who grew up to be a nurse, vowed to never let polio or post-polio syndrome keep her down despite it “coloring her world.” Stirling’s generosity in sharing her life with me, a stranger she had never even seen, combined with her survivor’s attitude created a heightened sense of empathy that impacted the rest of my historical research.

The stories we collected were emotional, enlightening, and provocative. I came to wonder how much telling them in 2020 shaped the content. I will always treasure the reflection Marguerite Young shared from her 1930s childhood about her grandmother’s hygiene edicts: “Before you sat down to a meal at my Gram’s house everyone washed their hands with soap and water. I watched her wash the tops of tins, the tops of glass milk bottles and even money. You never know who handled the money, she would say.” Was this something Young would always have emphasized or had the COVID-era messaging about hand washing or early advice of wiping down groceries prompted this particular memory?

More recently, my research has involved poring over issues of the Brantford Expositor, the very same newspaper we recruited our oral history participants from in 2020. Reading issues from the 1910s to 1978 first on microfilm, and now, thankfully, digitally, I can’t help recognizing a familiar pattern in how the media reports mass outbreaks of disease. There were ‘click-bait’ sensational headlines, such as “Fewer Pupils Enrolled, Polio May Be Responsible for Sharp Decline,” with the sharp decline being less than 200 in a city of thousands.[1] Articles like this, along with experimental treatments being proposed or denounced, panic over nursing shortages, the pros and cons of school closures, predictions that the end of a particular outbreak was near only to have another flare, and excitement or criticism about the promise of vaccines all seemed eerily similar.  As polio epidemics moved from front page headlines to back page snippets, my mind tended to draw conclusions about the fatigue or numbness that comes from a seemingly endless cycle of plague. Reading each issue means you also get to know the victims as they pop up, described as ‘case remains mild’ or ‘iron lung needed’ or ‘succumbed to their illness.’

Almost every Expositor article about polio during peak years quoted W.L. Hutton, the Medical Officer of Health in Brantford from 1919 to 1958. Hutton appeared to be the perfect combination of confident, stubborn, and protective, resulting in Brantford becoming a testing ground for an unproven polio nasal spray during the 1937 epidemic. A nasal spray that, despite being untested, and eventually discovered to be snake oil, was championed by Hutton and his committee throughout the polio-ridden days of 1937. The council was eventually forced to declare “we as a committee cannot at the present time say as to the efficacy or otherwise of the Nasal Spray Treatment.”[2]

I fell down the Hutton rabbit hole, reading everything I could find about his service in World War I to his disgusting admiration for Nazi sterilization practices as president of the Canadian Eugenics Society.[3] I discovered he had previously tested the impact of fluoride without public notice in Brantford’s treated water supply. I began to ask myself; would I care so much to research Hutton and his unproven nasal spray if I did not live in a world where people desperately try strange medicines to ward off COVID while our public health system groans in strain? Probably, yes, he was a relevant and an employed Nazi sympathizer in my local government! But I had to be sure that I wasn’t just imagining him as a talking head on Fox News. I had to remind myself to take a step back and recalibrate to what polio meant in the past, not how I felt about COVID now (or the reported return of polio to North America, based on wastewater testing in August 2022.)

As I continue delving into polio in Brantford, and COVID continues to wax and wane, I do so with increased knowledge of both from the other. To counter one overused historical maxim with another, history does not repeat, it rhymes. There are just enough similarities and differences between the epidemics of days past and the pandemic of today for research to be emotional, impactful, and hopefully teach us about both the present and the past.

Author’s note: Consent was provided for use of the participants names and information by a signed research agreement.

Tyler Britz is a research assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford Campus and recent graduate with a post-secondary degree in History. 

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[1] “Fewer Pupils Enrolled,” The Brantford Expositor, September 10th 1937.

[2] “Nasal Spray Discontinued,” The Brantford Expositor, September 20th 1937.

[3] Hutton is heavily featured in chapter three of Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990).

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