From the Cokato Historical Society's newsletter In the Midst Of, July, 2020, Vol. 40 No. 2.
Dr. Theodore Greenfield administers the polio vaccination to Cokato first and second graders. Also pictured from left to right are Paul Constenius, Sandra Boltz, Karen Boltz, and Keith Barberg.
From the 1920s-1950s, Cokato residents lived in fear of polio, a contagious disease that
particularly targeted Cokato’s youth. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, polio is a virus that attacks the nervous system, with symptoms ranging from asymptomatic, to paralysis, to death. Although most cases of polio were mild with little or temporary symptoms, the severe cases involved permanent paralysis, which was enough to cause panic when an outbreak occurred in the community. Adding to the anxiety, scientists at the time did not know how it spread and there was no known cure. In Minnesota, many severe polio cases were treated at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis.
In the summer of 1921, Lucille Peterson and nineteen-month-old Sidney Ahlstrom were Cokato’s first reported cases of “infantile paralysis.” According to the July 28, 1921, Cokato
Enterprise, “The disease is said to be growing in Minnesota…Wadena and surrounding, have a num-ber amounting to almost an epidemic.”
By 1946, Minnesota had its worse outbreak yet, resulting in 2,881 reported cases of polio and 226 deaths (MN Department of Health, 66). Across the state, schools, events, and large gatherings were canceled, including the State Fair. Cokato had its own outbreak, which filled the Cokato Hospital with polio patients, according to Carl Norman in his interview in the May 13, 2013, Cokato Enterprise.
According to the article, Carl, along with his other siblings Delores, Ruth, and Pearl, all contracted polio at different times. Ruth’s case of polio was so severe she ended up for four months in an iron lung, a negative pressure ventilator. Tragically, the virus claimed the life of 16-year-old Pearl.
In 1952, Minnesota had more cases of polio than any other state with 4,131 cases and 220 deaths (MN Department of Health, 70). By 1953, polio struck another Cokato family—Shirley Peterson (age 17), her nephew Steve Peterson (age 1), and her niece Katheryn Glessing (age 5). According to the January 24, 1990, Cokato Enterprise, Shirley’s complications with the disease led her to spend the next 37 years of her life requiring 24-hour care and a machine to help her breathe. Still, Shirley lived her life to the fullest, going on trips and participating in as many activities as she could.
Thankfully, in 1955 Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. By June 2, 1955, Cokato Doctor
Theodore Greenfield gave Cokato first and second graders their first round of the vaccine (see photo). The vaccinations throughout the nation that followed led to the eradication of polio in the United States by 1979.
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