PolioColumnBWBy Wendy Peterson Biorn

Carver County Historical Society

Diseases, plagues and epidemics have occurred throughout time. Virus and bacteria evolve and change making irradiation almost impossible. Carver County is not immune, having its share of outbreaks. Several of the worse include a diphtheria outbreak in 1878 and influenza in 1918. Often, the lack of knowledge about what was causing the disease and lack of antibiotics to combat the outbreak left a wake of broken families.
One of the worst Carver County outbreaks was caused by polio. Polio, or poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that occurs in two forms, paralytic and nonparalytic. For those unfortunate enough to contract the paralytic form, the prognosis included loss of muscle reflexes, serious pain and paralysis. There is no known cure once a person has been infected. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over a half million people worldwide, each year. The Carver County Fair was shut down one year, due to concerns about polio. The Carver County Historical Society’s newspaper indexing lists the first polio death as 31 year old Edmund Notermann, in November of 1939. The last death from polio is listed in 1955.
The invention of the iron lung helped the survival rate for polio. In 1927, Harvard medical researchers, Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw invented the iron lung. It was installed at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and tested Oct. 12, 1928, at Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Informing the public about polio was handled by several organizations, one of which was the Red Cross. In 1947 and 1948, the Red Cross traveled around the United States with a white trailer emblazoned with, “Ella Webb, the girl in the iron lung.” Two stops, in 1947, occurred at the Norwood Celebration and the Carver County Fair in Waconia
The attached photo is from the original O.D. Sell, Carver County Historical Society collection. The donor left a note stating that for a quarter you could go into the trailer and see the girl in the iron lung. For years that I have wondered who Ella Webb was, and why a person would be placed on display? This week, once again, an attempt was made to learn more about Ella Webb. This time perseverance paid off with the following results, found in the Biloxi Mississippi Daily Herald dated Feb. 13, 1947.
“Visitors will be able to gain first hand information on the working features of an iron lung at an exhibit of a new model respirator which opened in Biloxi The iron lung is housed in a large white trailer parked on West Howard avenue in front of department store and to being presented under the sponsorship of the American Veterans of World War II. Visitors will see the lung in action with Miss Ella Webb, 21, of Springfield, Ill in the role of a patient in an iron lung for 14 months. Miss Webb was an actual patient in an iron lung for 14 months following an attack of infantile paralysis and was able to end this treatment just nine months ago.”
As luck would have it, a lady visiting the museum and I started discussing Ella Webb and she asked if I would like to know more.
MariLu Peters told me she was a child when the trailer arrived at the Carver County Fair in Waconia. She remembered it well because people were giving money, thinking it was going to this poor girl in the iron lung. Later, she spoke to women who had seen the girl leave the iron lung and buy a hamburger. What MariLu told me substantiated the newspaper article from Biloxi that stated Ella Webb was “playing a role of a patient” in order to educate the public about polio and the medical advances provided by an iron lung. Finally, an answer to a question that for years had I had been searching for.
The Ella Webb iron lung photo is one of those snapshots in time that document important events, in this case, polio.
The current display, Join us in Remembering, Carver County Customs of Death and Dying, will be closing the end of February to make room for the Minnesota Historical Society traveling exhibit, Uncle Sam’s New Deal. We are open M-F from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. There is no charge. Summer camps registration is now available. To learn more, visit us at www.carvercountyhistoricalsociety.org or like us on Facebook.
Sources: Medical News Today  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/155580.php
Branson RD (1998). “A Tribute to John H. Emerson. Jack Emerson: Notes on his life and contributions to respiratory care”. Respiratory Care 43 (7): 567–71. http://www.archive.org/stream/respiratorycareo437amerrich/respiratorycareo437amerrich_djvu.txt