Age of Innocence, 1955 – Disease and the Origins of Obesity


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 and fear amongst parents.  Polio!

Polio, or to be strictly correct Poliomyelitis, is all but eradicated now, there are still some cases in Africa, but was previously right up there along with smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis with the World’s most deadly contagions.

Polio is a highly infectious and unpleasant disease that affects the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis or death. It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and dirty swimming pool water.   Even though the disease had been around for much of human history, major polio epidemics were unknown before the twentieth century and only began to regularly 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 poor 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.  In the USA there was a major and devastating epidemic in 1952 and after the nuclear bomb it became the thing that most Americans feared most.  In the UK there were about four thousand recorded cases every year.  There was no known cure for the disease and it became an imperative to discover a vaccine so when this came along this was really good news and the World breathed a collective sigh of relief.


The man responsible was a medical researcher and virologist called Jonas Salk.  Salk was subsequently revered as though he were a Saint and, rather belatedly, on May 6, 1985, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that day to be ‘Jonas Salk Day’.

Just out of interest May 6th is now celebrated as ‘International No Diet Day’, thus encouraging another deadly health curse – obesity!

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 qualified 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 if you caught it at best you would spend the rest of your life in leg irons or at worst in an iron lung (or to give it tits proper name a negative pressure ventilator).

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.  Later it was administered orally with a few drops on a sugar cube but I suspect health and obesity fanatics would frown upon that now. 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 unpleasant nasties like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis.  I can still remember the mere mention of suspected smallpox leading to mild panic by my mother.  And then there were the common children’s diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox which could also be killers themselves but generally just 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 by the time you were six years old your arm began to look a bit like a needle worker’s pin cushion.

So the nightmare of polio was under control but then, also in 1955, a man called Ray Kroc came along 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.

More about this next time…

Ray Kroc

9 responses to “Age of Innocence, 1955 – Disease and the Origins of Obesity

  1. Pingback: Age of Innocence, 1955 – Disease and Obesity | Have Bag, Will Travel

  2. how well I remember those days when a cold and a sore neck was a signal for a very worried mother.

  3. I remember those days as well. My mother was forever at a panic at the least sign of illness. Glad these diseases are pretty much gone. 🙂

  4. Rpsa Ave Fénix

    Very interesting this entry, of course I knew the desease, and I remember children using those horrible “iron legs” but I didn’t know ohter things about it.. Luckily it was over. but other terrible desases aren’t erased yet. Regards from Barcelona…

  5. So now we have the latest cult of fearing to vaccinate kids so that measles and other diseases that were virtually eradicated are making a return.

  6. My dad had polio as a toddler in the 1920s, just after learning to walk. A boy a few doors away caught it first and it may have spread along the drains – outside toilets in those days. My dad did learn to walk again, and eventually discarded his leg iron, but the affected leg was weak, slightly short and frighteningly thin. His infirmity kept him out of WW2 – otherwise I might not have been here to pester you with comments.

  7. My dad also had polio as a kid, catching it after paddling in a pond. It’s left him with one leg shorter and weaker but thankfully no other major repercussions and he went on to become a doctor, as well as run the London Marathon to raise money for polio-charities. I should probably ask him more about having the disease, but for now there are his memoirs! (

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