Sioux City Polio Epidemic 1952

July 16, 2013 Karie Youngdahl

Flooded Sioux City, 2011, fema.govI was raised in Sioux City, Iowa, a town of about 80,000 people on the western edge of the state, where the Big Sioux and Floyd rivers join the Missouri. Much of the town's history and identity comes from the rivers -- French fur traders used them for transporting goods, Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri, burying their only casualty on a bluff above the river in what is now Sioux City, and later, steamboats and barges moved material up and down the river. As they did in 2011, the rivers frequently flooded, with disastrous consequences. I hadn't known that a flood in 1952 was linked to a polio epidemic in the town.

My parents, both Sioux City natives, vividly remember their polio fears in Sioux City during the 1950s. They were adolescents at the time, and they recall the summers when polio flared: the pools were closed and friends disappeared from the neighborhood. The summer of 1952 was particularly bad: a heavy winter of snow followed by sudden warm temperatures in March led all three rivers to flood and disable the sewage system. Perhaps due to the compromised water supply, polio cases began to climb, filling the city's hospitals. The hospitals procured 11 iron lungs to treat the patients who had paralysis of respiratory muscles. (The iron lung shown here is one used at St. Vincent Hospital in Sioux City; it is on display at the Sioux City Museum.) In this piece from the Sioux City Journal, two survivors of the epidemic recall their treatment in local hospitals and a visit in August 1952 by Bob Hope. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Jack Dempsey also visited the polio wards in the stricken town. By July 17, there had been 12 polio deaths. In all, Sioux City reported 952 polio cases that year and 53 deaths. Nationwide, there were about 53,000 polio cases: 1952 would be the worst of the polio years.

Iron Lung, Sioux City Museum

As I've written about elsewhere on this site, William M. Hammon, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh, chose Sioux City as one of the trial sites for his test of gamma globulin for polio prevention. This passive immunization offered short-term protection to about 13,000 vulnerable Sioux City children beginning in July 1952. It would be two years before a more permanent form of protection, the Salk inactivated polio vaccine, would be tested in Sioux City and nationwide. The rivers would flood again, but polio would no longer be a consequence.

Many thanks to the helpful staff and volunteers at the Sioux City Museum for telling me about the iron lung and allowing me to photograph it.


July '52 Was Worst Month in Polio Epidemic. Sioux City Journal. August 19, 2012.

Mercy Sioux City History.

Polio Spreading at Sioux City. Daily Iowan. July 17, 1952.


Posted by Douglas Youngdahl (not verified)

I vividly recall the fear created by the epidemic. My parents told me to always put a handkerchief or cloth inside our hand when opening a door. Also my father instructed my brother and me how to correctly drink out of a glass: The inside of the bottom lip was never supposed to touch the outside of the glass. The bottom lip's correct position was on the outside of the glass. Yes that means that the bottom lip was inside the glass. While this may sound like a well-thought-out idea, it did make for a lot of spilling down the front of a shirt.

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Thanks, Dad!! :-)

Posted by tonya (not verified)

so it seems the outbreaks occured when the rivers flooded which wld increase contamination to the water d/t sewer systems not working properly and this is passed thru fecal material makes sense that you cld say the rivers were deliberately flooded to contaminate to bring on a vaccine to keep you "safe" from getting the disease. Then they get to test/experiment on the Indians just like small pox.. amazing what we don't see .

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

?? I still don't see it...

Posted by Tisha Thomas (not verified)

I was born in Sioux City on Aug 9, 1946, so I was not yet officially six years old at the time of this epidemic.  I remember it quite well, even so, as we lost a good family friend who was only 18 yrs old, my classmate and an acquaintance of my father in the same week.  Also, we knew a man who was in an iron lung in St Vincent's Hospital.  It was such a tragedy!  I participated in the testing of the Salk vaccine at Longfellow Elementary that year and was so thankful that I had a means to prevent my children years later from contracting polio.  I know several young mothers who are anti-vaccination supporters and who post regularly on Facebook about not allowing a miniscule amount of mercury to enter a child's body.  This misguided generation has no concept of what it is like to lose a family member to such a heinous disease as polio and to not be able to stop the rapid flight of this death angel through a community. I wish this topic was discussed in our schools. Thank you for posting this article.  I've learned a lot!

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Missing filter. All text is removed
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions. Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.