Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Summer of the epidemic: remembering Wythe County's polio epidemic of 1950

Summer of the epidemic: remembering Wythe County's polio epidemic of 1950

  • 0

The streets were empty of children. Fear stalked the town. People kept to themselves. One family with a half-dozen kids dumped a load of sand in its living room so the little ones could play indoors. Churches canceled services.

Sunday school classes were held over the radio. Stores and theaters closed.

Signs warned outsiders to stay away.

Out-of-town motorists brave enough to pass through town kept their windows rolled up, holding handkerchiefs over their faces. If they had to stop for gas, they'd crack their windows enough to shove money at the attendant, then speed away.

Five-year-old Betty Cook was alone, isolated in her bed, gazing out the window. She could see neighbors cut through a weedy lot, making an uneasy detour away from the home of the little girl just back from the hospital.

"They were just terribly frightened, " she recalls a half-century later. "At one point, I thought they were mean. As I got older, I told my Momma: They were just afraid. With all the things happening, and all the people dying, I probably would have been a little afraid myself."

What the people of Wytheville were afraid of was polio — a crippling, sometimes fatal disease with no known cure and, in those days, a mysterious path of contagion. In that summer of 1950, this mountain town of 5,500 was assaulted by what may have been the most concentrated outbreak of polio in U.S. history. Wytheville residents were 100 times more likely to catch polio that summer than people anywhere else in the nation.

Nearly 200 people in Wytheville and surrounding Wythe County came down with confirmed cases of polio. Seventeen died, according to official state figures; local authorities put the death toll at 23.

It was a summer of despair and panic. The spread of infectious disease can spark runaway fears, much like the ones that emerged in recent months with the spread of anthrax through the U.S. mail. The Wytheville polio outbreak, in contrast, was a true epidemic, springing from an unknown genesis. Take the fears that a handful of anthrax cases inspired across the nation this fall, multiply them 100 times, and you get an idea of how Wytheville residents felt as the totals of people ill and dead climbed relentlessly through the hot summer of 1950.

'We saw this baby fight back'

It was just another summer night: June 30, 1950. During the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game between the hometown Wytheville Statesmen and the Wilkesboro (N.C.) Flashers, the announcer explained that the Statesmen's second baseman, Jimmy Seccafico, was absent because his son, 22-month-old Johnny, was seriously ill. Fans passed the hat, collecting $227 to help the family.

A few days before, Johnny had come down with a sore throat and fever. His mother, Lucille Seccafico, took him to the closest thing to a hospital in town, the Chitwood-Moore Clinic, located over the Leggett's store on Main Street. It didn't seem like anything serious. The doctor gave him some medicine. He was still sick a couple days later, his mother recalls, when he began to shake. She thought he was having convulsions.

Back at the clinic, doctors gave him a skin test and told his mother he might have spinal meningitis or polio. She climbed into the back of an ambulance with him, riding east over twisting mountain passes, down the Main Streets of Pulaski, Radford and so on, making the 80-mile trip to Roanoke. At Roanoke's Memorial and Crippled Children's Hospital, a spinal tap confirmed Johnny had polio.

John Seccafico would become known as the first official victim of Wytheville's epidemic.

His paralysis was almost complete: He couldn't move his limbs, and his internal organs were in danger of shutting down. Doctors said he was too sick to put in an iron lung, a hulking, cigar-shaped machine that pushed air in and out of polio sufferers' lungs; they wanted to save the machine for a child who had a chance of surviving.

But the worst crisis passed that first night in Roanoke, Lucille Seccafico says. The next day, "They told me: 'We actually saw this baby fight back last night.' " Johnny's limbs were paralyzed, but he was breathing and alive.

June turned to July, and more cases emerged: 10-year-old Betty Jones, 5-year-old Betty Cook, Betty Jones' 7-year-old sister Imogene.

During the first week of July, Dr. C.P. Pope, the local health officer, began sticking pins into a map to see if he could discern a pattern in the outbreak. There was none. Johnny Seccafico lived near the coal yard. The Jones girls lived on the outskirts of town.

As the outbreak progressed, some victims seemed to be linked. In the Archer family, five of eight children fell ill. But mostly the disease was maddeningly capricious. In early July, Army Sgt. Howard Garland and his wife, Thelma, brought their 15-month-old daughter, Patricia, home for a visit from Fort Bragg, N.C. After visiting their families, they returned to Fort Bragg.

Patricia fell ill. Doctors at Duke University Hospital confirmed that she had polio.

By the second week of July, 15 cases had been verified in Wytheville and Wythe County. Three victims had died: a 20-year-old man, a 9-year-old boy and a 5-month-old girl.

Ambulances and hearses from the town's two funeral homes carried the living to Roanoke, a trip in pre-interstate days of three hours or more on U.S. 11.

Before the summer was over, 90 Wythe County residents would be among the 250 Southwest Virginians admitted to the polio wards at Roanoke's Memorial Hospital.

D.L. Barnett, who ran Barnett Funeral Home in Wytheville, reckons he and his drivers made at least 50 trips to Roanoke that summer, sometimes several in one day. One driver burned a formaldehyde candle inside the ambulance, hoping to prevent contagion, but the stinging smoke was too hard on the eyes. Barnett says he was never concerned about catching polio. It seemed to him that it struck people who were young or were weakened by other maladies. Besides, he was too busy to worry.

In Wytheville and in Roanoke, doctors and nurses worked withering schedules.

Dorothy Davidson, now 89, was a nurse at the Chitwood-Moore Clinic. She says she was so exhausted — probably from a low-level case of polio — that she couldn't lay flat to sleep at night.

Phyllis Naff and Betty Howell were student nurses at Memorial and Crippled Children's Hospital. They were thrown into the work of the crisis, caring for adults, children and babies in iron lungs or cribs.

"It was wall-to-wall cribs, " Howell recalls. "You had to move one crib to get to another. In a semi-private room, there were anywhere from eight to 10 cribs."

They applied hot packs to victims' arms and legs, gave the children baths and, whenever there was a power outage, pumped the iron lungs by hand.

"It was hard for all of us, because we were still in training, " Naff recalls. "It was something else to be there and to see these kids die and try to protect the other children who were in the room. You would try to divert their attention. They knew what was going on, but you had to protect them."

Not all of the sickest patients could go to Roanoke. Jim Crow segregation meant that black polio sufferers from Wytheville had to travel 250 miles to Richmond to find a hospital that would treat them — a hardship that Look magazine later called "medically inexcusable."

Betty Cook had been out jumping rope in her yard when she felt dizzy. She went inside and told her mother. Her doctor put her in an ambulance for Roanoke. As she and her mother were in transit, her doctor called Memorial Hospital, hoping they'd make an exception for a sick black child. The answer came back: Absolutely not. The ambulance kept going east.

"It took us forever to get to Richmond, " her mother, Sammie Cook, now 81, recalls.

'Get the facts'

As more people died, panic sparked rumors that bred more panic. At that point, medical science could not say how the disease was spread. Local folks felt helpless, grasping for answers and desperate for a sense of safety.

People bathed in Clorox, washed their hands in rubbing alcohol, wore pouches around their necks filled with garlic and onions and other folk remedies. A local bank spritzed its bills with fly spray, hoping to kill off money-borne infection.

Out-of-town letter writers cruelly suggested that Wytheville had brought the evil on itself by having a state-run liquor store, or for simply not being right with the Lord. Pulaski Town Council passed a resolution asking that Wytheville ambulances not stop in Pulaski on their way to Roanoke.

One Wythe County woman had a dream about dogs and swore that canines were spreading the disease. Some thought it was spread by flies, so officials sprayed clouds of poisonous DDT over the town — an effort, as much as anything, to soothe fears and appear to be doing something.

Quick-buck artists descended, trying to make money off the crisis by offering $5,000 "polio insurance" policies for $10.

Some people believed Johnny Seccafico had brought the illness with him from New Jersey, where his family lived when his father wasn't playing ball. But he was in Wytheville for six weeks before showing any symptoms, his mother says.

"I can't tell you how many health agencies questioned and checked and finally said, 'No, you couldn't have brought it from New Jersey.' "

Lucille Seccafico, who now lives in Toms River, N.J., says no one in Wytheville ever said an unkind word. "Nobody ever pointed a finger and said: 'You started this.' They're very gracious people. I couldn't praise that whole town enough."

Johnny Seccafico may not have been the first case of that summer, anyway.

Davidson, the retired nurse, maintains that at least one other child came into the Chitwood-Moore Clinic with polio-like symptoms before Johnny Seccafico did.

The local newspaper, the Southwest Virginia Enterprise, tried to allay fears by putting a hopeful spin on the story with headlines promising the outbreak would soon be over. But as the cases piled up, editor Jim Williams took stronger action.

He used his newspaper to urge everyone to "Get the Facts — Please Don't Spread Rumors." Realizing his twice-a-week publishing schedule was inadequate for keeping up with the story, he installed a large blackboard in front of the newspaper office. On it he chalked the total number of cases and deaths and the daily count of new cases and new deaths. The newspaper updated the information every three hours throughout the day and night.

Dr. Pope, the county health officer, announced a list of precautions that included hand washing, "no swimming in polluted water" and avoiding "violent exercises, " crowds and unnecessary travel. However, he advised against closing local businesses, believing economic needs outweighed health risks.

Still, many public places did close, including the two theaters and the new skating rink. Business had dropped to almost nothing anyway.

'Tomorrow it may be me'

By mid-August, the town and county had recorded 146 cases, including 16 deaths. On Aug. 10, a 27-year-old knitting mill worker, Guy Lephew, died of polio. His brother, Randolph Lephew, fell sick that same day. The day they buried his brother, Randolph, 23, was in the hospital in Roanoke. He died on Aug. 16, leaving a wife and an 18-month-old son.

His widow, Glaydese Rider, now 73, says people were scared but they pulled together because the epidemic took its victims from all walks of life. "If I was shunned I wasn't aware of it, because everybody was in the same predicament. Everyone around us. You couldn't say, 'So and so brought it on themselves.' Because tomorrow it may be me."

Little Wytheville drew national attention. Hollywood producers came to document the crisis. Judy Ward, who was 11 years old that summer, remembers coming home from the hospital in an ambulance and seeing a deserted Main Street, except for a couple of cars and a film crew. The camera crew chased after the ambulance, but her mother put her foot down. She was not going to let them film her daughter.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis gave $32,000 to help cover hospital bills and other costs. Thirteen respirators were sent to Memorial Hospital in Roanoke. Nurses and doctors were sent to bolster the hospital's limited resources. Physical therapists were dispatched to Wytheville.

At the end of September, health authorities announced that the epidemic appeared to be over. Schools finally opened Oct. 2.

The last case of the year came in October, bringing the official total to 184 —- although some say there were many other milder, undocumented cases that summer.

In later years, scientists would determine that polio is passed on via human feces, which are spread through tainted water or food, or by person-to-person contact. But what made Wythe County's outbreak so formidable? Many have theories, but no one knows for certain.

In 1955, the war on polio entered a new phase when it was announced that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine that would prevent the spread of the disease. What followed was a massive immunization program for schoolchildren.

It has virtually wiped the disease out in the United States — although millions worldwide still suffer because of lack of access to the inexpensive vaccine.

'I pushed and shoved'

In the summer of 2000, the outbreak's 50th anniversary spawned coverage in the Wytheville's Southwest Virginia Times. Last fall's anthrax scare prompted reporters from Richmond and St. Petersburg, Fla., to revisit the Wytheville polio story. Beverly Repass Hoch, who survived a mild case of polio in 1950, published a history of the outbreak in last month's Wythe County Historical Review.

After years as an Army brat, Patricia Garland returned with her family to Wythe County and finished high school, eventually marrying Paul Lambert, an auto worker. They raised a daughter and still live near Fort Chiswell.

Patricia Lambert, now 53, has lived almost all her life with braces and crutches. She has never let it slow her down. A medical supply firm in Roanoke made her stainless steel braces after she kept bending her aluminum ones by leaping off the school bus. She climbed trees. She played kickball with her daughter and the children she baby-sat in her home. She's even gone deer hunting with her husband.

Now she works in a program that assists children with medical handicaps.

"It's never been a hardship, " she says. "I've had 50 years. There are so many kids with cancer and leukemia who die so young. When you see little kids pass away, you think, gosh, if their parents could have had a little bit of the time that I've had."

Most people recovered from polio without long-term disabilities. But in the past couple of decades some of them have begun to suffer problems: weakness, pain, difficulty swallowing. Doctors call it post-polio syndrome.

Betty Cook had some facial paralysis after coming home from the hospital in Richmond, but therapy helped make it go away. She played trombone in the band in high school and college, married and became Betty Cook Brown, and taught school for 28 years.

"I've stayed tired all my life, felt like I couldn't do anything, " Brown, who now lives in Greensboro, N.C., says. "But I pushed and shoved."

Things began to worsen a decade ago. At 10 a.m. some school days, she'd feel like leaning over her desk and crying. She ached and hurt. The onset of post-polio syndrome forced her to take early retirement. She realizes now, she says, that she'd been misled. Doctors told her to push, push, push. Instead, she says, she should have been resting more, readying herself to battle polio's lingering effects.

The little boy who was supposed to die, John Seccafico, survived. He was left without the use of his legs and only 60 percent use of his arms. His therapy was long and painful. He vividly recalls the first time he fed himself. He was 4 years old and he used a spoon to eat a slice of canned peach.

He learned to move on, he says, because his mom never coddled him, never did for him when he could do for himself. There were times she'd play the tough-love role, and then go into her room and cry.

Today John Seccafico heads the largest family counseling practice in Ocean County, N.J. On a June night in 2000, he and his wife, Alice, and his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, drove into Wytheville. He hadn't been back since the day he left in an ambulance with his mom, almost exactly 50 years earlier.

He met with a group of local historians and longtime residents, including one of his father's former teammates.

"I got a lot of gaps filled in for me, " he recalls. "About what happened."

The Seccaficos found the town transformed by the arrival of Interstates 77 and 81, but still with a healthy downtown with its own theater and a variety of shops.

John Seccafico felt a strong sense of home. His daughter did, too.

"She fell in love with the town, " he says. "She's really making a big pitch to go back this summer. We're thinking about doing that."

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

Sports Breaking News

News Alert