Sixty-five years ago, on April 12, 1955, the Salk vaccine for polio was announced as being “safe, effective, and potent.” Since 1916, polio had cycled through cities and towns around the world.
The disease attacked the central nervous system, leading to paralysis and even death. Polio hit Greensboro particularly hard in 1948, leading to 249 cases — the highest per capita rate in the United States that year. As scientists raced to find a vaccine, the community did not sit idly by, but instead responded by building a polio hospital in only three months.
Over the past few years, I have worked with graduate students in the History/Museum Studies Program at UNCG to preserve the memory of Greensboro’s polio hospital. Only one wing of the original seven still stands on Huffine Mill Road, just north of Bessemer Avenue. Many people drive past the historic structure but they do not know the story it tells.
Polio survivors and family members know the importance of this history, however, and in 2019 the state installed a highway marker on Wendover Avenue just north of the building to remind us of this painful past.
As we conducted our research, we listened to countless stories of movie theaters and pools closing, children quarantined in their homes, and young patients at the hospital separated from their parents. We learned about how the Triad community accomplished the seemingly impossible by building a polio hospital in only 95 days. As Shirley Hayworth, a polio survivor, said to us, “I think that’s an important lesson for seeing how people embrace civic duty… a facility (that) brought in people whose lives were in crisis at the time and gave them reassurance and therapy at a critical time when they needed it so desperately. That kind of thing needs to be commemorated, for a county, for a community, for a city.”
In 1948, when a polio epidemic struck Greensboro, patients initially stayed at the Greensboro Record building and a recreation building at the Overseas Replacement Depot, or ORD. They quickly became overwhelmed with new cases and in July 1948, community leaders decided to build a new polio hospital. Many organizations such as the Jaycees and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis contributed funds and the community raised $500,000, the equivalent of $5 million today. Businesses provided discounted or free materials and construction workers volunteered at night. High Point resident Roy Shipman said in his oral history that “All aspects of the community were involved in every way they could. One of the things that came up, rather unexpectedly, was people who didn’t really have the money but had something they wanted to give, were willing to make it part of the cause.”
In October, the Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital opened its doors. The hospital had 134 beds and various medical equipment including iron lungs, a wading pool and whirlpools. It operated for a decade, serving hundreds of people from across North Carolina. At a time when many other hospitals in the area discriminated against African Americans, the polio hospital provided medical care and employed people of all races. In this way, the polio epidemic caused many community members to turn away from racist beliefs and policies — another lesson for us.
Today, we face a crisis of a different nature. The coronavirus pandemic brings with it both medical and economic devastation. And yet, we too wait on scientists to develop a vaccine just as people did in 1948. When you drive down Wendover Avenue, keep your eye out for the sign marking the polio hospital’s history. It reminds us that generations before us have faced similar challenges with compassion and generosity.