Original Document
Original Document
Dr. Florence Seibert, on being stricken by polio in 1900.

IN THE HOT SUMMER OF 1900 a stealthy enemy was laying his heavy hand upon many children in Easton, Pennsylvania, a little town of about twenty thousand people, which nestled in the junction where the Lehigh joined the Delaware river. More than twenty children in scattered sections of this town, and even one child ten miles up the Delaware, were stricken. With so many persons attacked at one time it seemed suspiciously like an epidemic, and in later years history recorded it as one of the first epidemics of polio in the United States to be so recognized. The town, in fact, later became famous as a seat of similar epidemics, and a target for epidemiological studies.

One family with three children between the ages of one and four was doubly touched. The mother was a loving and conscientious woman of German extraction, one generation removed from Germany, and had shown exceptional talent in painting and lace making, the popular diversions of the ladies of her day. The father, George Peter Seibert, was descended from an old and prominent Easton family, and, although with a temperament suited to the professions, he had chosen to carry on the family business of manufacturing rugs, since both of his brothers were studying medicine. The business was small but built on honesty and industry and was typical of our American way of life. The profits furnished only the simple needs of this father's family and sufficed for a happy family life, such as could normally be pursued in this little town.

I, the second child, became sick for a day and then well, and then sick again, but this did not seem too strange, for the summer was very hot, and it recalled the attack of dysentery I had had at two years of age. Toward the end of the week, however, this sickness became alarming, and the doctor uncle was called. He shook his head and said, "The symptoms are much like a rare disease which I have just learned about on a recent trip to Philadelphia. They called it poliomyelitis, but they don't yet know too much about it.

It was Sunday, and father took the little boy, Russell, for a walk in the park to relieve mother in the care of her sick child and attention to her year-old baby, Mabel. As they walked, little Russell began to drag his feet, and it seemed that he, too, might be weary from the mood of discouragement, but it soon appeared that the sluggishness was more than just boyish whim. So they headed for a bench, and Russell made no effort to climb up on it. He was hoisted up, but father decided to make sure about his suspicions. He dropped a paper on the ground and said, "Russell, please get it for me."

The little boy thumped to the ground but was unable to get up. With a heavy heart father carried him home to our already saddened mother. The diagnosis of polio was also confirmed for him, although he had sickened in a very different manner. With two children already sentenced by this strange paralyzer, doctor uncle insisted that my year-old sister, Mabel, be immediately removed from the household. She was quickly weaned and taken to our grandmother's home.

Business and everything else was neglected while each child, screaming .with pain, was held by the stunned parents. Neighbors were driven from their porches during the hot nights by the cries from these hapless children. It is fortunate that memories do not reach back into babyhood, and yet, perhaps some do. I remember only the big yard with several terraces back of that house next to the High School building. The terraces rose to a very high elevation, which was fenced-in from an abrupt steep drop to Delaware street that ran below along the river by the same name.

On one of these terraces was our sand pile, which I remember, and there we three children played happily together. Why should I remember the big green horse flies which bothered us in our play? In after years when I learned how the polio virus can be carried by flies, I asked mother, "Why were they there? Where did they come from?"

"There was a stable down on Delaware street along the river front, and perhaps the flies flew up to your sand pile from there," she answered. Everything was done that was known in those years to bring the lifeless limbs back to usefulness. For years mother patiently and faithfully massaged our legs until, I am sure, along with all the housekeeping chores, she must have wondered why she had been given such a heavy cross to bear. We were encouraged to try to take steps by the use of walkers in which we hung with our arms on a small ring suspended over a large ring that in turn was supported by ball-bearing rollers.

In this way our feet touched the ground, and we could maneuver them with no worry about falling. No polio vaccine, no modern physiotherapy treatment was then dreamed of, and yet the faithful passive massaging we received can surely be largely credited with our restoration to useful lives in the years to follow. Now, thanks to the work of many scientists–Goodpasture, Enders, Gard, Salk, Sabin and their associates–we dare dream that no child shall be the victim of polio.

Credit: Florence B. Seibert, Pebbles on the Hill of a Scientist (St. Petersburg, Florida: Saint Petersburg Printing Company, 1968), 2.
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