1948 Polio Epidemic

by Jordan Green

John Key, a long-haul trucker, rushed home to south Greensboro in early June 1948. His growing family included two girls and a boy, and his wife was eight months pregnant with their fourth child. John and Mary’s second daughter, Patsy, had complained to her mother that her legs wouldn’t move.

“Piddle, come to Diddle,” Key urged, using the daughter and father’s respective pet names.

“Diddle, Piddle can’t walk,” 3-year-old Patsy replied.

The family doctor knew immediately that it was polio. He told Mary there was no point in bringing Patsy in for a visit; she might pass along the disease, then rapidly spreading through Greensboro and other Piedmont communities. The girl went immediately to a makeshift hospital in a recreation hall of the old Army Overseas Replacement Depot on Bessemer Avenue.

By then, the wooden structure was overflowing. Three reported cases in April had leapt to more than 19 in May, according to the late Dr. Robert L. Phillips, a neurosurgeon originally from West Virginia who chronicled a century of Greensboro’s medical history. Firefighters kept watch around the clock in case the ramshackle building should catch fire.

Brenda Barrow remembered her mother breaking down in distress after little Patsy was taken to the hospital.

“Lord, she was pitiful,” Barrow recalled. “I remember she had on a green maternity dress. She just went into her room and bawled. We had some neighbors that came over to take care of us kids, to help Mother with anything she needed. They said, ‘We’re not afraid of polio.’ Everybody else was afraid of it. It was hitting women and children and babies. We had the whole situation.”

Sixty years ago, Greensboro was the focal point of a polio outbreak that proliferated in the warm summer months, striking mainly children but sometimes adults, often consigning its victims to a lifetime of dependency on crutches and leg braces and sometimes, when the virus attacked the brain stem, causing sudden death. The polio epidemic of 1948 struck harder in the North Carolina Piedmont than in any other part of the country. By raw count, Los Angeles County, Calif. and Harris County, Texas had more total cases, but no county had more people infected per capita than Guilford, wrote John S. Stevenson in a 1966 article for The North Carolina Medical Journal. Across North Carolina, 2,516 polio cases were reported in 1948, according to state health records, compared with 300 the year before and 229 the year after.

That July, according to Phillips, two local doctors named Samuel F. Ravenel and Roy M. Smith recommended at a meeting of the Greensboro Academy of Medicine that children should not be allowed in public places. Within 10 days pools, playgrounds and recreation centers closed, and soon children under the age of 16 were discouraged from patronizing movie theaters. Phillips reported that churches canceled Sunday school classes and Bible lessons were taught over the radio. Planes sprayed DDT in the streets of Greensboro in the belief that polio might be spread by flies, according to several accounts.

While many children remained shut inside, others like 15-year-old Peter Vanstory, son of a former mayor and future bank executive, went to the South Carolina coast for the summer to escape the epidemic. Vanstory and first cousin Mary Watson “Watty” McAlister would stay at a Myrtle Beach cottage owned by Vanstory’s uncle, Charles W. Angle. A local builder, Angle had put up the Vanstorys’ house in tony Irving Park and served on the board of trustees for L. Richardson Memorial Hospital, the facility set aside for blacks.

“It was so contagious,” said Dr. Bose Ravenel, whose father took charge during the public health crisis, and who now practices as a pediatrician in High Point. “It was almost like a drive-by window, as my father described it. Doctors would take the child and place them on a table with their parents sitting out in the car. They would do a lumbar puncture to find out if it was viral polio or meningitis, and then hand the child back through the window and they would either get to go home or they would be sent to one of the facilities where polio was treated.”

Despite his son being safely ensconced in Myrtle Beach, CM Vanstory Jr. had joined members of the local chapter of the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis in calling for the construction of a new hospital at a meeting of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce that June. Vanstory would assume a position on the new hospital’s board of trustees.

“Dad was responsible for ramrodding it through,” said Peter Vanstory, who is now a vice president at Carolina Bank in Greensboro. “Dad had some awfully good friends: the Cones, J. Van Lindley, Nathaniel P. Hayes, president of Carolina Steel. Dad had a lot of education and he was a good golfer. Plus being on the city council.”

For a brief moment in Greensboro’s history, the community came together to confront an acute crisis, and the custom of racial segregation was temporarily set aside to provide emergency care to the afflicted and stay the contagion. While healthcare facilities in Greensboro would remain officially segregated for another 15 years, white and black patients shared wards, and nurses of both races worked side by side to treat the sick during the polio epidemic. In a moment when a growing city full of post-war promise might have been crippled into economic stagnancy, ordinary citizens surpassed fundraising goals, city leaders worked connections to secure critical supplies, and a hospital – the second largest polio care center in the world, according to Phillips – was thrown up in only 95 days.

The community’s heroic response brought Greensboro national recognition in accounts published in Life and Reader’s Digest.

Stevenson described Greensboro’s response to the polio epidemic in The North Carolina Medical Journal as “the story of the unselfish spirit of a community in a time of crisis. It is an epic in humanitarianism, one which reveals the willingness of people to put aside all differences and combine their resources and efforts to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.”

A member of the local chapter of the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis who headed procurement efforts, John R. Foster recalled to an oral historian with the Greensboro Public Library in 1978 that “non-union and union men [worked] side by side doing the same jobs. We had no particular hours; [it was] amateurish. But everybody pitched in to give of their time and money. For example, the restaurants on Sunday – we had crews working, of course, on Sunday – the restaurant association would bring us lunch on the grounds. People were so anxious to do things, you almost had to look around for something to assign them.”

The city was bursting at the seams, finally shaking loose from the economic privation of the Great Depression and government-imposed rationing that accompanied World War II. New homes sprung up in as-yet undeveloped Kirkwood, where veterans waited for housing. In the decade that followed, Cone Mills and Burlington Mills would develop into textile powerhouses; Lorillard Tobacco Co. opened a sprawling plant east of NC A&T University; and the city built a coliseum for sporting events and conventions. From 1940 to 1960, Greensboro’s population would double from 59,319 to 119,574. Not least of these indicators of modern urbanity would be Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, which proved when it opened in 1953 to be, in the words of contemporaneous historian Ethel Stephens Arnett, “the ultimate in durability, utility and good modern architectural design,” with the added advantage of being air-conditioned.

“All these young men coming home from the war needed housing,” said Buddy Weill, then 24, who dated some of the nurses at the polio hospital. “There was a construction explosion. But all that had to wait while that hospital was being built. Anyone who was working on that project had to accept that it was their duty to make sure it was their first priority.

“The whole community embraced it, as though there was nothing else going on,” he added. “There was a lot going on. This had to be number one, and it was.”

The Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital opened on Oct. 11 on land donated by the county at the intersection of Bessemer Avenue and Huffine Mill Road. The fund drive had produced sums more than double the initial goal. As Phillips reported, 116 patients from the Overseas Replacement Depot and a second makeshift hospital in the former offices of The Greensboro Record on North Greene Street “were transferred by ambulance with the nurses hand-pumping iron lungs to the new hospital.”

The pediatricians – Dr. Ravenel, Dr. Jean McAlister, who was a distant relative of the Vanstorys, and others – who staffed the new hospital also made sacrifices.

“You doctors are not charging anything for these services. Isn’t that getting close to socialized medicine?” Foster recalled Ravenel being asked. “And Doctor Ravenel, a great guy, I never will forget it, said, ‘No, what we do comes from the heart.’ That pretty well answered the question about socialized medicine.”

As a matter of practicality, the wards were set up by age and sex. The community simply couldn’t be bothered with sorting patients by race, as social custom dictated across the US South in those days of racial apartheid. The arrangement was “very unusual in 1948,” Foster acknowledged.

So unusual, in fact, that Gov. Gregg Cherry sent a local emissary to inquire.

“I had a call one day from a very prominent Greensboro attorney, good politician,” Foster said. “And he said, ‘John, I understand that your patients out at the hospital – that the black patients and the white patients are side by side in the units. Said, ‘The governor called me and wanted to know about it and questioned whether or not that should be done.'”

Foster remained unfazed.

“You go back to the governor and you tell him if he wants to be crucified politically, just bring that up as an issue,” Foster told the lawyer. “No one was concerned about integration or segregation insofar as the hospital – there was never a mention that I can ever recall in that area. No one ever questioned it at all. The problem was too serious.”

It was a matter of practicality rather than idealism. When Foster later served on the Greensboro School Board, he joined the majority in support of a resolution promising compliance with the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring separate-but-equal education to be unconstitutional, but local schools would not fully integrate until 1971.

Guilford would be the only county in the state chosen in 1954 for a trial study using a new vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, according to Phillips’ account, and the patient population at Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital declined through the decade, with the facility closing in 1958. The disease left its mark on the community, although the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported the last polio case in the United States in 1979. Patsy Joyce, for one, was able to work as a rural mail carrier for 10 years, but had to retire after sustaining a back injury from lifting oranges around the time of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1987. Now dependent on a motorized wheelchair, Joyce endures Post-Polio Syndrome, a condition thought to be caused by her determination to lead an active life. “You hurt,” she said. “You’re depressed. Your whole body aches.”

The hospital reopened briefly as a rehabilitation center in 1961 and then closed again the following year. The dormant hospital and the nearby National Guard armory would serve as detention centers for hundreds of students from A&T, Bennett College, Dudley High School and Lincoln Junior High School who were arrested for their efforts to desegregate S&W Cafeteria, Mayfair Cafeteria and local movie theaters in the spring of 1963.

Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital’s ignoble coda as jailhouse of the burgeoning civil rights movement suggested that the city’s brief experiment with racial liberalization pointed up its exceptionality. As Phillips wrote in a 1990 account called History of Integration of Medicine in Greensboro: “Segregation returned promptly after the epidemic was over.”

Historian William H. Chafe wrote in his 1980 chronicle, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Struggle for Freedom, that “once the epidemic had passed, some people began to object to white and black nurses eating together, and hospital administrators established separate facilities. When one nurse questioned the new segregation, she was dismissed.”

At the time of Greensboro’s swift response to the polio crisis, the city’s medical establishment had contemplated dismantling the color barrier. Indeed, the late 1940s might have been an opportune moment: The city’s under-funded black hospital, by all accounts, lacked specialized equipment and personnel, and with the 1947 death of Bertha Cone a substantial trust suddenly became available to build a state-of-the art medical facility.

In his presidential address to the Greensboro Academy of Medicine, Dr. John Burwell had urged the professional association to accept black physicians within its ranks.

“I know the feelings that many of us have about intermingling of the races,” he told his colleagues in January 1947, according to Phillips’ History of Integration of Medicine in Greensboro. “I am sure that my point of view is as Southern as that of anyone else here. But the time has come when we must face the issue squarely. As segregation decreases, cooperation must increase. We cannot be both representative and exclusive at the same time. I should like to plead that we do ourselves and our city a service by amending our constitution to permit the admission of colored doctors to the academy.”

Phillips reported that only three months later “the question of inviting local Negro physicians to attend meetings and participate in the discussion of their problems was introduced” at the April meeting of the Greensboro Academy of Medicine. “The issue was very briefly discussed and then promptly voted into silent oblivion.”

Dr. George H. Evans, who was the chief of staff at L. Richardson Memorial Hospital for many years, recalled: “We did not have access to up-to-date equipment and facilities because Richardson could not afford it. Richardson had no endowment.” His wife, Marguerite, testified to the pride the Richardson staff held in their service, even while they made do with limited resources. “The doctors were all dedicated,” she said. “The staff was well educated. You think about how hard we worked for things to be comfortable.”

Because city leaders knew that the sizeable Cone family textile fortune would become available when Bertha Cone died, improvements to white healthcare were also put on hold. No one knew exactly how much was in the trust, said Weill, and few anticipated that she would outlive her husband by almost four decades. A year before her death, the Greensboro medical establishment had begun to raise alarms.

Phillips noted in his history of the Greensboro Academy of Medicine that the Committee on Hospital Expansion drafted a letter to the city’s chamber of commerce in November 1946 noting “that Guilford County had no facilities for the care of contagious diseases, no facilities except the jail for psychotic patients, no adequate facilities for the care of poliomyelitis, and no facilities to handle victims of a major disaster. They mentioned that a large number of our sick were forced to go elsewhere for medical services and that our hospital shortage discouraged needed new doctors from settling here.”

CM Vanstory Jr. was the first employee of the hospital that was to be built with the Cone fortune.

“They hired Dad to be the original director of Moses Cone hospital,” Peter Vanstory recalled. “That was before the land had been picked, before it was decided if it was going to be a teaching hospital, or a children’s hospital or what.”

Even as Greensboro’s white doctors closed the door on black inclusion in their professional association, the paternalistic pattern of the city’s race relations surfaced in discussions among members of the white establishment about the fate of Richardson Hospital. Only six weeks after the opening of the integrated Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital, Phillips reported that Charles W. Angle, Peter Vanstory’s uncle and a member of the Richardson Hospital’s board of trustees, called for a discussion of the black hospital’s future. “Would it be closed, would it become a subsidiary of Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, or would it continue as it is?” Phillips wrote. “Dr. O. Norris Smith stated that if colored physicians did not have privileges at the proposed Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, it would be imperative to maintain a L. Richardson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Jean McAlister said, at the discussion, that she thought the Negro physicians just wanted their own hospital.”

Whether black doctors were ever asked their opinion is hard to ascertain. Evans said the desirability of desegregating medical staff and healthcare services was a topic of frequent discussion among Greensboro’s black doctors, and those informal talks would come to fruition in a legal challenge to Cone hospital’s exclusionary policies under the leadership of Dr. George H. Simkins in 1962.

“I certainly would not have been in favor of them being separate,” Evans said. “I would have been in favor of them being merged… Of course, it happened later on, but not as quickly as we would have liked it to happen.”

One High Point doctor advised Herman Cone, president of board of trustees, that the new Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital should not accept federal funding, his argument being that such aid might at some point obligate the hospital to hire black doctors.

“Thinking further about your question as to whether or not to accept federal aid for your hospital, I at present am of the opinion that it would be better not to do so,” Dr. Harry L. Brockman wrote in April 1950. “I am thinking primarily of the problem of race integration; and of the complications arising from such steps as the government requiring admission of colored surgeons to the staff and having white nurses work under their direction. In years to come such problems will be worked out; but we know the tendency of the present administration to force these issues. Incidentally, I would like to see you take over L. Richardson Memorial Hospital and develop it as a real good hospital for all your colored patients.”

In December 1952, two months before Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital opened, its board of trustees codified a policy of racial discrimination.

“The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital will admit as patients Negroes whose medical conditions require facilities and services available at this Hospital and not also available at L. Richardson Memorial Hospital,” the policy read. “To be considered for admission, a Negro must first have been admitted to and be a patient in L. Richardson Memorial Hospital from which transfer will be made to this Hospital.”

In 1960, the policy was amended to allow black patients direct admission to Cone hospital “with the prior approval of the Administrator of L. Richardson Memorial Hospital, provided final authority to approve such admissions rests with the Admitting Office of Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.”

Peter Vanstory, who left Greensboro in 1949 to attend the Choate School, an all-male prep school in Connecticut that also graduated future President John F. Kennedy and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, did not give race much thought as a young man.

“I didn’t think much about segregation,” he said. “I remember there was a separate section for them in the Carolina Theatre, they rode in the back of the bus, and they drank from separate water fountains. The Civil Rights Act hadn’t occurred at that time. That was just the way things were. It was just the way of the South.”

Not all whites in positions of power approved of segregation.

Even though the new hospital’s exclusionary policies were already codified, Phillips reported in History of Integration of Medicine in Greensboro that Dr. Joseph Lichty, who succeeded CM Vanstory Jr. as administrator, advocated “that since dining facilities at Cone Hospital were available for both colored and white, he thought it appropriate the colored doctors be asked to join the Greensboro Academy of Medicine. This was put in the form of a motion and seconded by Dr. AK Maness. A great deal of discussion ensued. Finally Dr. Lichty made a substitute motion for a committee to be appointed to study the matter.” Dr. C. Thomas Whittington, president of the academy, “announced that the committee would be appointed later.”

Dr. Ravenel, who had donated his services at the polio hospital and who was appointed the first chief of staff at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, would revive the proposal a year later, only to be overruled by his colleagues.

“He just didn’t get hung up on race,” said his son, Dr. Bose Ravenel. “He saw people as what they were. If they were good doctors, then so be it. He would not have been considered a political liberal or a crusader. It was a common-sense kind of thing.”

Both the city and county medical societies had wrestled over extending “scientific” memberships to black doctors so that they could access the common store of professional knowledge, but wanted to deny them social membership, which would necessarily entail intermixing between the doctors and their wives. Black doctors wanted nothing less than full inclusion.

Phillips reported that in 1956 “Negro physicians of Greensboro and High Point announced that they are not interested in the ‘second-class membership’ which has been offered them by the Guilford County Medical Society. The Negro group was composed of eight Greensboro and four High Point physicians with George H. Evans as president. This was in response to the By-Laws committee action headed by Dr. Richard Dunn on January 3, 1956, which accepted Negroes as scientific members.”

Seven years later, in November 1963, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals would deal a fatal blow to medical apartheid in Greensboro when, in response to a lawsuit brought by dentist George H. Simkins, it ordered Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital and Wesley Long Community Hospital to discontinue discriminatory practices in patient admissions and staff appointments. The federal courts found that the hospitals’ use of federal construction funds obligated them to extend their services to all citizens. The following year, the Civil Rights Act would ban discrimination on the basis of race outright.

In 1963, meanwhile, a movement of black students from Guilford County colleges, high schools and even junior high schools had exploded in the streets to demand an end to segregation in cafeterias, movie theaters and other public accommodations. The crisis spurred Mayor David Schenck to appoint a human relations committee – forerunner to the present day Greensboro Human Relations Commission – to negotiate between the demands of the emboldened black student movement and the city’s entrenched white establishment. Dr. Evans chaired the committee.

“After all this furor was over and everything quieted down, some of the people in power said to me, ‘Doctor, if we had known that the transition was going to run so smoothly, we probably wouldn’t have resisted as much.'” Evans recalled. “It happened without any violence. It made me want to say, ‘I told you so.'”

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