Difference between revisions of "First-Hand:Polio and Education"

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Revision as of 16:39, 20 May 2020

Submitted by Emerson Pugh

On a Saturday morning in October 1941, I walked down to the local football field to play “pickup football” with other boys about my age. About twenty boys did show up, and we selected two teams of about equal capability. A boy named Andy on the other team was the biggest player on the field. Every time we selected a ball carrier, he was quickly tackled by Andy. So, I asked our team captain to give me the ball and have our team members block out everyone but Andy. Our team captain did this. I was given the ball, and I scored a touchdown by running faster than Andy. Before this game was over, I had scored two more touchdowns.

The next morning was a Sunday morning, in October 1941. I went outside to deliver Pittsburgh Press Newspapers to my customers. All of my customers lived within walking distance of my home on Walnut Street in Edgewood. Edgewood is a small suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and only a few miles from Carnegie Tech where my father did research and taught physics. Living in the same home on Walnut Street, were my brother, mother, and father, with whom I share the first name, Emerson. I was 12 years old and 3 years and 4 months younger than my brother, George, who was named after his fraternal grandfather, George Edgin.

The Sunday paper was thick and heavy and cost ten cents, compared to only three cents for the daily paper. I pulled the Sunday papers around my route in a small four-wheeled wagon because they were too heavy to carry in a bag over my shoulder as I did with the daily papers.

When I returned home, I was tired, and my legs hurt. My mother told me to take a hot bath and go to bed. I did so, and soon fell asleep. When I woke up, my legs still hurt. My mother called our family doctor and told him that she suspected I had polio. Our family doctor said that his son had recovered from polio when he was a child, and that he was now a doctor. He suggested that his son be the one to examine me, and my mother agreed.

The young doctor drove to our home, examined me, and concluded that I did not have polio. He recommended more rest in bed. After he left, my mother called his father and said she still believed that I had polio. Our family doctor told her to take me to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh immediately and not to let me walk. My father was to carry me everywhere I went. He carried me down two flights of steps in our house, and out to the car where he put me in the back seat. When we arrived at Children’s Hospital, my father carried me up three short flights of steps to the front door.

I was then put on a stretcher and wheeled into a room where I was given a test for polio, known as the “spinal-tap.” The result was positive; I had polio: a disease which is also known by less frequently used names of poliomyelitis and infantile paralysis. I was assigned to Dr. Jessie Wright who specialized in the treatment of this disease. I was immediately wheeled to a bedroom where my clothes were replaced with a white hospital gown and I was placed in a bed in which I would receive the Sister Kenney Treatment for polio.

For this treatment, wool cloths were cut into shapes to fit my back or to be wrapped around my thighs or around the lower part of my legs. These wool cloths were then soaked in hot water in a washing machine that had been placed beside my bed. A nurse pulled these wool cloths out of the hot water one-at-a- time and put them through the wringer to remove most of the water. She then flapped each wool cloth in the air before placing it on my back or around one of my legs. This sheet of hot damp wool was then covered with a sheet of oilcloth, followed by a sheet of dry wool, both cut to the same pattern. This very warm encasement remained on me for almost an hour before it was replaced by a new one. This process was repeated several times each day. Polio was so contagious that my parents had to wear masks and stand in the hall outside the door to my room when they came to visit me.

After many weeks of the Sister Kenny, Treatment, Dr. Wright decided that I had improved enough to be moved from Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa. to the D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children in Sewickley, Pa. There, the emphasis of the Kenny Treatment switched from hot packs to Physical Therapy in which the Watson Home had specialized since the early 1920s. Primarily, I was given passive exercises, in which a nurse exercised my legs, while I relaxed my legs as best I could.

My Christmas gift to my parents was to sit on the edge of the bed, and then stand on my legs and take two steps, all by myself. Their gift to me was a football that I had requested. This exchange of Christmas gifts helped confirm my belief that I would fully recover.

On December 7, 1941, while I was still in the hospital, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States responded by declaring war on Japan and Germany. Our country had entered what is now called World War 2. To save gasoline for military uses, it was rationed. My parents had to obtain a special ration card so that they could buy enough gasoline to visit me by driving from Edgewood to Sewickley and back once or twice a week.

In addition to employing nurses, cooks, and maintenance people, the D. T. Watson Home also employed teachers. Most long-term residents attended classes on crutches or in beds, carts, or wheelchairs. Because I arrived at the Watson Home long after classes began, teachers came to my bedroom to tutor me in various subjects. I was poor in spelling and a slow reader, but I did well in arithmetic and mathematics, and I learned to enjoy reading and writing poetry.

Patients were encouraged to participate in various sports, including out-door games beginning in the Spring. Among these was softball, which I enjoyed playing with my friend, Walter McBride. His arms and upper body were good, but his legs were paralyzed from the hips down. When it was his turn at bat, I would push him to home plate in a wheelchair. Walter then locked his leg braces so that his legs could not bend at the knees.

Walter then balanced himself in a standing position in front of the wheel chair. If he liked a ball thrown by the pitcher, he swung his bat. If the bat hit the ball, Walter would fall back into the wheelchair with both legs stiffly pointed forward. Then I pushed him to first base as fast as I could. If we got to first base before the ball thrown by the fielders got there, Walter was credited with a hit. Walter remained in his wheelchair, at first base, until a subsequent batter hit the ball. It was then my job to push Walter to second base. If we were lucky, Walter would ultimately score a run, and I would be very pleased.

By June 1942, I was physically and mentally ready to go home. There was a difference of opinion, however, as to what grade I should enter in the Edgewood Public School System. I had barely started 7th grade when I was admitted to Children’s Hospital with Polio. Thus, the Edgewood School System recommended that I begin again in 7th grade.

The teachers who had tutored me at the Watson Home had a different opinion. They said I was very intelligent and should be placed in a grade with children my own age. Because an illness of unknown cause had set me back a year during 4th grade, they recommended that I now skip both 7th and 8th grades and enter 9th grade. After considerable thought, my parents agreed with the Watson Home tutors, and they managed to persuade the Edgewood School System to comply.

That summer, my mother tutored me, especially in reading and spelling. When I entered 9th grade that fall, I was quite concerned and worked very hard. Mostly, I did well enough, and my confidence increased. My confidence really jumped one day when the math teacher told the class that I had the highest score in the class on the recent algebra test. He further told our class that my score on this test was the highest score ever achieved during the five years this test had been given.

I continued to do well in high school, after being advanced two grade levels (from my previous grade level to my age level). This gave me and my parents confidence that I could do well in college. When Dartmouth College offered me a full-tuition scholarship, I decided to go to Dartmouth.


Emerson W. Pugh spent his freshman-year at Dartmouth College taking liberal arts courses and improving his skills in down-hill skiing. He then transferred to Carnegie Institute of Technology, which is now Carnegie Mellon University. There he was captain of the CIT team that won the Grand National Debate Tournament of 1950; and he himself also won the extemporaneous speaking contest. There he earned his bachelors- degree in 1951, followed by his doctors-degree in physics in 1956. He remained one more year to teach physics and to continue coauthoring, with his father, a college physics text book, which was published by Addison Wesley Company in 1960 with the title: “Principles of Electricity and Magnetism.” This text book was widely used in many colleges and a second (slightly revised) edition was published in 1970.