I was 1 year old in 1949 when polio struck my mother. As I got older and could understand why she was in a wheelchair, she told me about her time in the hospital — more than a year — most of it an iron lung. Late at night she would lie awake, listening to the rhythmic pumping of the iron lungs on her polio ward and to the whooping cries of babies with pertussis that echoed down the hospital’s corridors.
That scene of polio patients in iron lungs and babies with pertussis struggling to breathe was played out in hospitals across the country. In 1949, 42,000 cases of polio were reported in the U.S., along with nearly 70,000 cases of pertussis. There were also more than 600,000 cases of measles reported, though the actual number was probably more than 3 million since most measles cases were never reported to health departments.