Remembering the polio epidemic of 1951

By Ian McKechnie

Medical equipment for polio patients included the famous “iron lung.”

In the late summer of 1951, a young man named Harold Mitchell journeyed to the Canadian National Exhibition with some friends.

To a lad from Wilberforce, a trip to Toronto’s annual extravaganza would have been quite an outing – what with all of its colourful midway rides, mouth-watering aromas wafting from hamburger stands, and awe-inspiring entertainers offering quite the contrast to the quieter environs of rural Haliburton County.

Opened by special guest Eleanor Roosevelt, the CNE of 1951 hardly differed from its predecessors in terms of fun and, of course, food.

But not all was well in Toronto, Ontario, and across Canada that year.

Lurking invisibly among the thronging crowds pouring into the Exhibition grounds was the poliovirus, which had been leaving a destructive path among Canada’s youngest citizens for decades.

This virus, which infected the nervous system and caused poliomyelitis, could lead to paralysis. By the end of the year, over 1,700 people in Ontario alone were affected. Among them was young Harold Mitchell.

“I was 14 when it happened,” says Barbara Murdoch, Harold’s younger sister by four years. Barbara, who now lives in Lindsay, recalls her brother mysteriously collapsing on September 27 of 1951.

Fortunately, the Mitchells did not live too far away from the village’s Red Cross outpost – the first of its kind in Ontario. Opened in 1922, this unadorned building served a remote part of cottage country for over 40 years and was staffed by dedicated nurses like Sylvia Cameron.

Sylvia, who had once travelled by railway handcar to reach her patients, was the first person to come to Harold’s aid. “I had to hop on my bicycle and get her to come over,” Barbara says today. “She knew exactly what it was when [she saw] that he had lost the use of his legs.”

For the residents of remote communities, the polio scare presented a challenge. Medical equipment required to treat polio patients – like the famous “iron lung” – was generally located in urban areas, far away from little Wilberforce.

From his hometown, Harold was accompanied by his father and a family friend named James Mumford to the hospital in Haliburton, and thence to an isolation hospital in Toronto.

Harold was kept here for a short time before ending up at a hospital in Peterborough where he stayed for at least a year. The situation was serious. Barbara, out with a group of her friends, remembers Mr. Mumford pulling up in his car and telling them that they had to go home right away.

Only the family breadwinner was permitted to leave the house for necessities, and Barbara remembers being told that young people couldn’t go swimming.

(Water was a good place to avoid during the polio epidemic. Neil Young, the famous Canadian folk musician, was believed to have contracted polio during the 1951 epidemic after swimming in Omemee’s Pigeon River.)

“There were a lot of cases in [nearby] Bancroft,” Barbara says, and medical personnel were kept busy treating them throughout that fateful autumn.

That epidemic lasted until 1953, and two years later a successful vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk of New York.

Although Harold Mitchell would go on to become a mechanic, and eventually regained the use of his legs, he suffered from the effects of polio for several years thereafter. He died in 2008, a few months short of his 75th birthday.

Reflecting on this frightening episode in Canadian history during the present COVID-19 pandemic, Barbara Murdoch says “I’ve been through this before” – a reminder that this generation, too, will cross the bridge over these troubled waters.

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