West River Children's Hospital & Polio Center - 1949
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Baby getting a polo shot

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious viral disease more common in children than adults. Polio has been around for a very long time but it wasn't scientifically described and documented until the late 18th century. It was not known to be contagious until 1908. Cases of polio in the U.S. began to rise at about that time.

1916 saw the first major polio epidemic in the United States. The disease hit hardest in New York City. Nationally, there were 27,000 cases about 6000 deaths.

From the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, polio cases in the U.S. again rose to epidemic levels, with 35,000 cases annually.*

The number of polio cases dropped sharply in 1955 following the discovery and distribution of an effective polio vaccine. The U.S. has been considered polio-free since 1979.

This 1949 film shot at the West River Crippled Children's Hospital and Polio Center, Hot Springs, shows what was happening in western South Dakota after a serious 1948 epidemic, and before the larger epidemic of 1952. The film shows that hospital administrators knew they needed a larger and more modern facility. They were right. There were 298 polio cases in South Dakota in 1950. There were nearly three times as many South Dakota cases in 1952, the peak of the epidemic.

The film is courtesy of Historical Footprints Inc., Lead.

*Learn more about polio at this Centers for Disease Contol Web site.

Learn more about the history of polio in South Dakota.

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