In 1952 Texan Paul Alexander was unlucky enough to fall victim to an appalling epidemic that raged across the U.S. Poliomyelitis, otherwise known as polio, swept across the country and left a trail of devastation in its wake. And Alexander – aged just six at the time – contracted the disease that summer and has suffered a lifelong disability as a result. Sadly, his impairment has meant a life trapped horizontally inside a now archaic piece of medical apparatus called an iron lung. But, as we shall see, Alexander did not just lie down and accept his prognosis.
Recent generations are lucky to have escaped many of the medical horrors that were once all too commonplace in human history. Yes, before medical science had accrued its current wealth of knowledge, there were many illnesses that doomed humankind to terrible consequences – from severe, lifelong impediments through to death. And one of the most feared of these merciless diseases was polio.
Also known as infantile paralysis, polio only affects humans and is especially cruel in that it largely attacks very young children. And the disease has been a scourge of the human race for millennia; even Ancient Egyptian art portrays its crippling effects. However, the ailment was not clinically defined until the 18th century when British doctor Michael Underwood wrote a paper on childhood diseases. Underwood described the disease as “a debility of the lower extremities.”