Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, January 26, 1951

Polio and the Iron Lung

On Wednesday, July 7, 2021, the Virginian-Pilot ran a fantastic story of a family in Portsmouth during the 1950s raising funds for the March of Dimes. Brendan Rose, the grandson of Mrs. Louise LeRoy, found her old scrapbook and photographs of his grandmother who fought for the polio vaccines in Portsmouth. She was quite an activist in her day

Brenden Rose has written a fascinating thesis comparing the polio vaccine to that of the present day COVID-19 vaccine. He used his grandparent’s old scrap-books and learned not only about infantile paralysis (polio) but who his grandparents were, and the hard work this couple did to rid our area of this dreaded disease. In reading this fascinating article, my memory was transported back to the 1950’s when polio was a much dreaded disease which attacks the nervous system and causes an often debilitating disease called poliomyelitis.

At the time, polio had been emerging in towns across the country. It was gaining steam in the 1940s especially during the hot summers. I can remember my mother not allowing me to go outside during the heat of August months.  I also remember in the months of March 1950s there was March of Dimes with mothers going door to door throughout our neighborhoods of Edgewater-Larchmont collecting funds (mostly lose change) for the March of Dimes. Polio was a much dreaded disease. And all Americans at the time remembered President Roosevelt had suffered from this dreaded disease.

When I was six year old, I saw my first Iron-Lung. It was at the Oyster Bowl Parade on Granby Street. On the March of Dimes float was a young lad (patient) in an iron lung and a nurse standing alongside of him in her nurses white outfit and her blue cape waving in the wind. I did not know anyone at the time that had this dreaded disease.

However, my next encounter with the iron lung and polio was at old Norfolk General Hospital building on Raleigh Street. Today it’s called Sentara Hospital. The year was June 1957 and I was scheduled to have my tonsils and adenoids removed by Dr. Gordon Harrell, a noted ear, nose and throat doctor at that time. I remember climbing up the outside granite stairs on Raleigh Avenue of the old Norfolk General Hospital. As one entered one could smell ether. As I was going to my room with my parents, I had to pass the children’s ward, and there was a young boy in an iron lung. These scenes have been etched in my mind forever.

During the 1930s to the 1950s polio was a dreaded disease. It would be Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) that would come up with a vaccine to prevent polio. However, ten years later an oral vaccine by Dr. Albert Bruce Sabin (1906-1993) would come along in the form of a sugar cube. I had my sugar cube in the auditorium of old Larchmont School. It was free.

The Ledger-Dispatch newspaper ran an article of a local teen, a young man 18 years old and a graduate of Maury High School, by the name of James Edward Gatling, 1923-2010, that had been stricken with infantile paralysis. The date was Thursday, September 18, 1941, and the news quickly spread.  The following is the news story in 1941.

Eddie Gatling had been working on the Benmorerell Navy housing project with his father when the illness occurred. He stated having headaches, followed by back aches. Soon his arms and legs got very stiff and his breathing was affected.

A call was quickly made to Dr. John C. Sleet (1876-1952), Health Commissioner of Norfolk, after which he was quickly diagnosed with polio. In an all-out effort Dr. Sleet quickly got the only iron lung in Norfolk to the Henry A. Wise Hospital, a hospital that treated polio patients. The Henry A. Wise Hospital Welfare Center was where individuals with incurable diseases were treated. This quick action saved this young man’s life. 

Saint Vincent DePaul Hospital on Wood and Church Streets had the only iron lung. Through the efforts of Dr. Dandridge Payne West (1886-1962) and Leonard Galbraith (1906-1966), they  quickly transported the iron lung to the Henry A. Wise Hospital Welfare Center on Rugby and Church Streets for the stricken Gatlin boy. Two years later another case of poliomyelitis developed in Norfolk County on September 2, 1944, when a 2-year old girl was also rushed to Henry A. Wise Hospital for treatment.

This iron lung had been presented to St. Vincent’s DePaul Hospital by contributions of the Police Dept., Fire Dept., Rifle Club, the American Legion, Bugle Corps and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Much publicity had been reported about this new iron lung, (a life-saving apparatus) which arrived in Norfolk on September 21, 1940. The cost was $1,500.00, quite a hefty sum in those days, and Mr. James Gatling would be the first patient to use this new iron lung in our area.

Interestingly, in May 1951, to make young teens aware and know the seriousness of this polio disease, high schools in the Norfolk area had an iron lung displayed in their foyers for all to see. Maury was the first to do this. These iron lungs stayed on display for one week so teens could witness what infantile paralysis could do to one’s body.

James Edward Gatling would go on to graduate from Duke University with a Bachelor’s Degree and was written up in the Who’s Who of American Colleges and Universities. He pursued a career in life insurance and financial counseling with Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company. He would retire due to complications with post-polio syndrome, but he never lost his sense of being positive. He taught an insurance course at Old Dominion and he would participate in many community service projects in our area, especially his favorite Chesapeake Bay Foundation, clean the bay.  Gatling, a lifelong member of Epworth Methodist Church, and married 60 years to his wonderful wife Ann Manson Gatling and they were blessed with three children.

Polio and the iron lung are things of the past. Polio is now a conquered disease, but like Covid 19 there were some individuals in the 1950s that did not trust the new polio vaccine. Thanks to Brenden Rose, the grandson of Mrs. Louise LeRoy, and his new thesis which brought out the similarities of these two dreaded diseases and how people viewed and reacted to them.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com