Fall 1941: polio outbreak delays school opening in Walker County


On Oct. 2, 1941, The Mountain Eagle reported that schools around the county had finally started their fall term. The start of the school year, originally scheduled for Sept. 9, 1941, had been delayed twice due to an outbreak of polio.

The first case of polio, or infantile paralysis, was reported by the Eagle on July 10, 1941. A black child in Hull, described as being in the eastern part of the county, had been diagnosed by a Cullman County physician who had failed to report the case to County Health Officer A.M. Waldrop.

By the time Waldrop was informed, the child had been taken to a Birmingham hospital to confirm the diagnosis and then taken to Tuscaloosa County.  

A 17-month-old child in Barney was diagnosed within the week.

Waldrop urged the public to remain calm but to use caution. 

By the end of July, 19 cases of polio and one death had been reported. The latest victim was an 18-year-old girl from Jasper. According to Waldrop, two families in the county had two cases each, which he said was rare.

The reported cases had been confined to the eastern part of the county along the Warrior River until cases were reported in Nauvoo and Oakman as the Eagle went to press. 

Waldrop ordered a Scout camp in the southern part of the county closed. Churches and Sunday Schools had also closed in neighborhoods where polio had been found.

The polio epidemic, a designation that state health officials had hesitated to use for weeks, was said to be worse than it had been in Alabama since 1936.

The medical community did not yet know what caused the disease.

By the time that the Eagle reported on Aug. 28 that the epidemic had begun to recede, 83 cases had been diagnosed in the county.

On Aug. 20, Dr. L.M. Walker discussed polio with members of the Jasper Kiwanis Club. 

"Dr. Walker declared emphatically that the present panic over polio in Walker County is causing a hundred times more suffering than the disease itself. He said he was receiving about 500 telephone calls a day from anxious mothers who want to know whether it would be safe to go here or there and a hundred other questions about what should be done in reference to polio," the Eagle reported. 

According to Walker, only 10 out of 100 cases of polio would result in paralysis, and only 5 of those would be crippled for life. Walker estimated that the county had had about 130 cases of polio during the summer of '41 so far. Of those, 13 were paralyzed and three of those had died.

On Sept. 11, the Eagle reported that an effort was underway in Cordova to buy an iron lung, or respirator. 

Nearly $700 had been raised so far, with Cordova cotton mill workers pledging $500 and local Masons, K of P and the City of Cordova also joining the effort. Donations were yet to come in from Barney, the brick plant and the American Legion.

An unnamed Cordova physician said he believed two polio deaths in the Cordova area could have been prevented if te patients had been placed in iron lungs.

"Beat 12 has not asked for any contribution from other parts of the county, but inasmuch as that beat has been hit harder by the polio epidemic than any other beat in the county, it would be nice for other parts of the county to contribute to their iron lung fund," the Eagle reported. 

In other news from the Oct. 2, 1941, edition of the Eagle, Miriam Gann of the Jasper Advertiser had been named Navy Editor. Her job was to give young men of Walker and surrounding counties information about the Navy and to take their applications.

Eagle readers also learned that Felix Hamner was back to work as an assistant cashier at First National Bank after having been in an automobile accident on Sept. 21.

"His head was stil bandaged and he looked a little hollow-eyed," according to the Eagle. "Felix wore a pair of glasses when the accident occurred, which were broken and one of the lens found under the car seat, but fortunately, he was not cut on the face by the broken glasses."

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.