In 1955 there was a major medical breakthrough with the introduction of a vaccine to prevent the spread of an illness that caused widespread panic amongst parents. Polio!
This is a highly infectious disease that affects the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis. It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and swimming pool water. Major polio epidemics were unknown before the twentieth century, even though the disease had caused paralysis and death for much of human history. Polio had existed for thousands of years but epidemics only began to occur in Europe in the early nineteenth century and soon after became widespread in the United States as cities got bigger and a lack of hygiene and sanitation created serious health hazards.
By 1910, much of the world experienced a dramatic increase in polio cases and frequent epidemics became regular events, primarily in these big cities during the summer months. It became an imperative to discover a vaccine so when this came along this was really good news.
There were a number of forms of polio with varying degrees of seriousness but the one that you really didn’t want to catch was spinal polio which was a viral invasion of the motor neurons in the spinal column which rather importantly are responsible for movement of the muscles, including those of the body and the major limbs. When spinal neurons die, degeneration takes place, leading to weakness of muscles, and with the destruction of nerve cells, they no longer receive signals from the brain or spinal cord and without nerve stimulation the muscles becoming weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and finally completely paralysed. Progression to maximum paralysis is as quick as two to four days.
Not being a doctor I have massively simplified the medical details here of course but one thing that was absolutely certain was that polio was a very nasty business indeed and parents were understandably worried sick about it because there was no known cure and if you caught it at best you would spend the rest of your life in leg irons or at worst in an iron lung. The vaccine was administered by an especially nasty injection which if you were unlucky left an ugly crater in the top of the arm, but that was a small price to pay for peace of mind. Thankfully, polio is now practically unheard of in those countries that use the vaccine.
Polio wasn’t the only killer of course and there were also vaccines and injections for other nasties like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. And then there were the common children’s diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox which didn’t kill you outright but made you feel rather poorly for a day or two. To protect against them there were regular trips to the doctor’s surgery for injections against them all and there were so many pricks in your arm that you began to look a bit like a pin cushion. By the age of six or seven children of my age had had so many needles inserted that they must have had more pricks than an Amsterdam red light district prostitute!
So the nightmare of polio was under control but then, also in 1955, a man called Ray Kroc unleashed a new monster and the beginning of the western world obesity problem when he opened the ninth McDonalds franchise restaurant, in Des Plaines, Illinois, which eventually led to the McDonalds Corporation and world domination by the hamburger giant.
Kroc was a milkshake machine salesman and his work brought him into contact with the two brothers, Maurice and Richard McDonald, at their innovative hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino in California.
The brothers were interesting characters who were inspired by the assembly line manufacturing method of Henry Ford and in 1948 they closed their traditional restaurant for several months and applied the principles of mass production to the restaurant industry. They pared the service back to the essentials, offering a simple menu of hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes, which were produced on a continuous basis, rather than made to order, and with no alternatives offered. Food could thus be served to a formula, nearly instantaneously and always consistently, a new idea that they called “fast food“. The waitresses were dispensed with and customers walked to a single window to place and receive their orders. They made the food preparation area visible to the customers, to exhibit its standards of cleanliness, and they eliminated all plates and cutlery, serving only in paper bags.
The two brothers were not particularly ambitious however and only wanted to have their one restaurant but Ray Kroc wanted to have even more new McDonalds and he pressed then to expand the operation. Eventually he lost patience and forced the brothers out of business by opening a rival diner that he called McDOnalds (similar but not the same) right on the other side of the street. The small restaurant of the two brothers lost their customers and Ray Kroc bought them out in 1961 for $2.7 million, which was a tidy sum in 1961. McDonalds didn’t reach the United Kingdom until 1974 and now there are over a thousand of them. I don’t remember when I first started using McDonalds, probably at about the time the children started to request it as a dining option, and now I would only use it if I am absolutely desperate!
1955 unleashed another American icon on the world when Walt Disney opened his Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Sixteen years later the World Disney World resort opened in Orlando, Florida and although I have never been to California I went to Disney World three times in the 1990’s which was good fun but at least one time to many.
In the world of national and international politics, in this year Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in Great Britain and Juan Peron, who was famously married to Eva Duarte, or Evita as we popularly know her, was overthrown from power in a coup in Argentina. Cardiff became the official capital of Wales, Austria became a sovereign state and faithfully promised the world to remain forever neutral and the Soviet Union finally declared the end of the Second-World-War with Germany.
In sport the 1955 Le Mans disaster occurred during the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race when a racing car involved in an accident flew into the crowd, killing the driver and eighty-two spectators which in terms of human casualties has been the most catastrophic accident in the history of motor sport.