Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how much shit humans have lived through.

Swedish Poliomyelitus Epidemic of 1911

I didn’t know polio and Sweden went together, but in 1911, they did. There were almost 4,000 cases reported in Sweden in that year, and it was the biggest outbreak of polio up to that moment in history.

Polio viruses. Honestly, once you start searching for appealing images of viruses and bacteria, all you learn is the color palette you prefer. I prefer some yellow wormies on mine, yellow wormies with a plummy backdrop.

Some “fun”(?) polio facts: Pharaoh Siptah, king of Egypt in 1197 BCE, probably had polio. Several mummies found with foot problems made Egyptologists begin to speculate about polio in ancient Egypt. Siptah lived about 100 years after the famous King Tutankhamen, and similarly was a boy king who died still a boy. In 2021, Siptah’s body, with his messed up foot suggesting polio, was moved to a new Egyptian museum. Presumably he’s there right now.

Siptah’s feet. The closer one is obviously the one perhaps affected by polio. Yes, they don’t look great, but to paraphrase Yoda, when 3,000 years old you reach, look this good you will not.

While the polio virus had been identified in autopsies of humans and monkeys in the early 1900s, there was a ways to go in understanding polio and preventing it.

In 1905, scientist Ivan Wickman had studied a smaller Swedish polio outbreak, and noted that some family members of polio victims were not affected. He figured they were carriers, infected but not affected. He was right.

Ivar Wickman, as portrayed at the Polio Hall of Fame in Warm Springs, Georgia (FDR’s polio treatment facility). I have always wanted to go there, and now I can’t wait to see the Hall of Fame (although it seems like a polio hall of fame should be full of people polio has killed, and a terrible place).

Three Swedish scientists, Carl Kling, Alfred Pettersson, and Wilhelm Wernstedt found polio virus in the in both the respiratory system and the small intestine.

Not just a scientists, but possessed of an intriguing hairstyle.

Their work was thanks to 14 people who died of polio and were used in the research (I hope consensually but ugh who knows) and 11 people who were very ill with polio. They posited that the polio virus comes in when you breathe, and leaves poopside. They were also right.

Another of our Swedish scientists displaying his extreme moustache. I couldn’t find a picture of Wilhelm Wernstedt. Sorry, everyone.

Comparing the spread of polio in 1905 and 1911 helped scientists to understand that previous exposures made older people safer from the disease in subsequent outbreaks.

In 1912, Swedish scientists presented their ideas at the Fifteenth International Congress on Hygiene and Demography. (If there’s a less sexy convention, please propose it.). However, not everyone was convinced. It took another decade or two for the rest of the world to realize the Swedish contingent was spot on.

Good job, Sweden!

With great sadness, I will report that fear and hatred of polio is like fear and hatred of Nazis: dying out. People in New York City have polio again. People haven’t watched my favorite 1990s TV show, “Homefront,” which includes a character in the 1940s contracting polio and becoming paralyzed, and shows images of iron lungs. People don’t spend enough time learning about my hero Franklin Roosevelt and how polio kicked his ambitious, energetic ass. They don’t know how sad it was he never gave up on being able to walk on his own, he kept trying and trying. People don’t know the woman I recently ahd at a party at my home, who struggled a bit on the stairs because of childhood polio a very, very long time ago.

And people don’t understand that the only good thing about Nazis is giving Indiana Jones some people to beat the shit out of without any hangover of guilt.

We’re a bit off track.

Anyway, I always take a vaccine they’ll give me. I’ve had boosters for polio and measles, mumps, rubella, and I’m looking forward to another covid booster. It’s an insult to everyone who suffered and died, and everyone who lost sleep and skipped meals obsessively working in laboratories and clinics to let yourself get diseases we’ve already figured out.

: )


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