The Reconstruction Home, FDR, and the Iron Lung Club: A History of Polio in Chemung County

by Erin Doane, curator

From April 17 to May 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) undertook the largest synchronized event in the history of vaccines. The organization coordinated 155 countries and areas around the world in the simultaneous switch from the old oral polio vaccine to a new vaccine in the hope of fully eradicating polio worldwide by 2019. 

The United States stopped using the oral polio vaccine entirely in 1999, so we were not part of this world health event. There has not been a reported case of polio in Chemung County since 1961. People born here in the last 50 years have never experienced the fear of contagion or the effects of the crippling disease that swept through the population on a fairly regular basis before the development of a vaccine in the 1950s. Many people today may not even know what polio is or why it is so important to finally eradicate it forever. 

Governor Roosevelt meeting a child stricken 

by polio on his visit to Elmira in 1929.
Poliomyelitis, or polio, is also known as infantile paralysis. According to the WHO website, polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that is transmitted person-to-person through the fecal-oral routine. Children under 5 years old are at the greatest risk of infection. Early symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck, and pain in the limbs. The infection can spread to the nervous system causing paralysis, usually in the legs. 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5 to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized. There is no cure for polio. 

Chemung County suffered a polio epidemic in 1921 that left many disabled children without rehabilitative or long-term care. In January 1923, the Elmira Rotary Club took steps to help those children. The club purchased the former home of Governor Lucius Robinson at 563 Maple Avenue in Elmira and created the Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children. The home opened its doors just a month later. Children who came to live in the home received physical therapy and had around-the-clock care. There was also a classroom in the home, equipped and staffed by the Elmira school system. 

The Reconstruction Home for Crippled Children on Maple Avenue in Elmira, c. 1920s
Shortly after the Rotary Club began its charitable undertaking, the members’ wives got together and formed the Rotary Anns, an auxiliary group dedicated to the Reconstruction Home. They raised money for furnishings and equipment for the home, sewed linens, and provided special treats for the children. The Anns’ goal was to make the place feel more like home to the children, many of whom lived there for months at a time. Whenever possible, they took the children on outings to the movies or the circus. There was also a picnic at the Roy Farm in Wellsburg each summer. All the children, whether they were ambulatory, in wheelchairs, or on frames, were loaded into cars and trucks and taken out to enjoy a day in the countryside.

Christmas at the Reconstruction Home, 1924
In August 1929, the Reconstruction Home received a famous visitor – then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt made the brief stop while in the area to inspect the State Reformatory in Elmira. In 1921, he himself had been stricken with polio and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The Elmira Star-Gazette reported that the children were a bit shy at first about meeting the governor but “when Roosevelt smiled they all hobbled up to meet him.” One youngster in a wheelchair declared, “I wanna meet the guvnor. Take me to him.” 

Governor Roosevelt visiting the Reconstruction Home in Elmira, August 1929

Eddie Wright of Hornell, resident of the Reconstruction
Home, meeting Governor Roosevelt,
Elmira Star-Gazette, August 14, 1929
By the late 1930s, demand for the rehabilitation services and care at the Reconstruction Home had waned. At the end of 1936, there were only five children left in residence. The home closed its doors for good in February 1937. It had operated in Elmira for 15 years during which time nearly 350 children had received care.

Children outside of the Reconstruction Home, c. 1920s
In 1944, Chemung County suffered its worst polio epidemic. The first case was reported on June 20. By the time the outbreak ended in December of that year, 293 patients from the region had been treated at St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospitals. Six people died in the epidemic and many more were permanently paralyzed by the disease. Five out of the six deaths were children. One of the reasons that this outbreak was particularly bad was because it took place while World War II was raging. Of Chemung County’s 60 physicians, nearly half were away in military service. 

Another polio outbreak hit the county in May 1953. While not as severe as the 1944 epidemic, there were still 80 cases reported and four deaths. St. Joseph’s Hospital started what became known as the “Iron Lung Club.” The hospital had been presented with an iron lung in 1946 by the National Foundation. An iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that was essential in treating people with polio when they could not breathe on their own. Patients would stay in the iron lung for weeks, months, and even years at a time. 

Diane Bacon, last respirator polio patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital 

in Elmira, is transported in an iron lung for further treatment in 
Buffalo, September 22, 1953, Elmira Star-Gazette
In 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk first tested his polio vaccine. Five years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed a new oral vaccine. Sabin’s vaccine was licensed in 1962 and became used world-wide to prevent the disease. Starting in 1962, the Chemung County Medical Society sponsored mass clinics for the administration of the Sabin vaccine. That year, some 92,000 area residents were inoculated. The final clinics took place on “Sabin Oral Sunday,” November 15, 1964. 

In 1988, there was an estimated 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries worldwide. In 2015, those numbers were down to just 74 reported cases in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is a decrease of over 99 percent. The WHO’s dream to completely eradicate polio may well have a chance of becoming a reality.

Children and staff at the Reconstruction Home, c. 1930s

Post Polio Litaff, Association A.C _APPLAC Mexico

The Polio Crusade

THE POLIO CRUSADE IN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE A GOOD VIDEO THE STORY OF THE POLIO CRUSADE pays tribute to a time when Americans banded together to conquer a terrible disease. The medical breakthrough saved countless lives and had a pervasive impact on American philanthropy that ... Continue reading..http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/polio/

Erradicación de La poliomielitis

Polio Tricisilla Adaptada

March Of Dimes Polio History

Dr. Bruno




A 41-year-old man developed an acute illness at the age of 9 months during which, following a viral illness with headache, he developed severe weakness and wasting of the limbs of the left side. After several months he began to recover, such that he was able to walk at the age of 2 years and later was able to run, although he was never very good at sports. He had stable function until the age of 18 when he began to notice greater than usual difficulty lifting heavy objects. By the age of 25 he was noticing progressive difficulty walking due to weakness of both legs, and he noticed that the right calf had become larger. The symptoms became more noticeable over the course of the next 10 years and ultimately both upper as well as both lower limbs had become noticeably weaker.

On examination there was wasting of the muscles of upper and lower limbs on the left, and massively hypertrophied gastrocnemius, soleus and tensor fascia late on the right. The calf circumference on the right exceeded that on the left by 10 cm (figure1). The right shoulder girdle, triceps, thenar eminence and small muscles of the hand were wasted and there was winging of both scapulae. The right quadriceps was also wasted. The wasted muscles were also weak but the hypertrophied right ankle plantar flexors had normal power. The tendon reflexes were absent in the lower limbs and present in the upper limbs, although the right triceps was reduced. The remainder of the examination was normal.

Figure 1

The patient's legs, showing massive enlargement of the right calf and wasting on the left


What is that nature of the acute illness in infancy?
What is the nature of the subsequent deterioration?
What investigations should be performed?
What is the differential diagnosis of the cause of the progressive calf hypertrophy?



An acute paralytic illness which follows symptoms of a viral infection with or without signs of meningitis is typical of poliomyelitis. Usually caused by one of the three polio viruses, it may also occur following vaccination and following infections with other enteroviruses.1 Other disorders which would cause a similar syndrome but with upper motor neurone signs would include acute vascular lesions, meningoencephalitis and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.


A progressive functional deterioration many years after paralytic poliomyelitis is well known, although its pathogenesis is not fully understood.2 It is a diagnosis of exclusion; a careful search for alternative causes, for example, orthopaedic deformities such as osteoarthritis or worsening scoliosis, superimposed neurological disorders such as entrapment neuropathies or coincidental muscle disease or neuropathy, and general medical causes such as respiratory complications and endocrinopathies.3


Investigations revealed normal blood count and erythrocyte sedimentation rate and normal biochemistry apart from a raised creatine kinase at 330 IU/l (normal range 60–120 IU/l), which is commonly seen in cases of ongoing denervation. Electromyography showed evidence of denervation in the right APB and FDI with polyphasic motor units and complex repetitive discharges, no spontaneous activity in the left calf and large polyphasic units in the right calf consistent with chronic partial denervation. Motor and sensory conduction velocities were normal. A lumbar myelogram was normal. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the calves is shown in figure2.

Figure 2

Axial T1 weighted MRI scan (TR 588 ms, TE 15 ms) of the calves, showing gross muscle atrophy and replacement by adipose tissue on the left, and hypertrophy of the muscles on the right, with only minor adipose tissue deposition


The differential diagnosis of the progressive calf hypertrophy is given in the box.

Causes of calf muscle hypertrophy

Chronic partial denervation

  • radiculopathy

  • peripheral neuropathy

  • hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy

  • spinal muscular atrophy

  • following paralytic poliomyelitis

    Neuromyotonia and myokymia

  • Isaac's syndrome

  • generalised myokymia

  • neurotonia

  • continuous muscle fibre activity due to: chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculopathy, Guillain Barre syndrome, myasthenia gravis, thymoma, thyrotoxicosis, thyroiditis

    Muscular dystrophies



  • tumours

  • amyloidosis

  • cysticercosis

    Link here