Guest Commentary

Clare Westcott

The Polio Scare

I remember the day they put us in quarantine. The town constable in Seaforth, Ont. nailed a big red card on the house, just right of the front door. The sign read: “DANGER: Quarantined – Poliomyelitis – Do Not Enter – By order of the Medical Officer of Health.”

This was in 1941. My sister Blanche was eight years old. On Halloween, as she remembered it, Blanche didn’t feel well and could not join the others in trick-or-treating. The doctor thought she had the flu. Months dragged on and the symptoms persisted.

One evening Blanche was doing her homework in our tiny kitchen, resting a schoolbook against her legs. She complained of a sense of numbness, as if her leg had fallen asleep. Stepping to the floor, Blanche’s leg gave way and hung limp, as if it wasn’t there at all. The doctor diagnosed polio.

Only later did researchers learn that polio was spread by airborne virus, that it destroyed nerve cells and wasted muscles. Only in 1957 was the first vaccine offered to children. In 1941 polio terrified people. It was panic. I remember those days filled with fear and confusion over a disease even doctors knew little about.

My sister Marguerite and I could not go to school, or even leave home. Dad worked and slept at his watch repair shop to avoid the quarantine. He would come to the house twice a day and stand on the walk, speaking with my mother through an open window.

Groceries were left by a cautious delivery man who’d set a box of food on the front steps and hurry away as fast as possible. I remember watching the milkman from Goudie’s Dairy arrive in his horse-drawn wagon to leave milk at the end of the sidewalk. He wouldn’t even venture up the steps and refused to touch the empty glass pints and quart bottles my mother left outside the door.

There was kindness, too. Maxine, a girlfriend about the same age as Blanche, gathered the neighbourhood kids together after school and waved at us from the street.

The quarantine was lifted after three weeks and Blanche was taken to War Memorial Children’s Hospital in London, Ont. Her recovery lasted all that winter. When warmer weather arrived we would take her out in a wheelchair for fresh air. Rex, our little fox terrier, was Blanche’s protector. Small as he was, if anyone ventured too close to the wheelchair, he’d bare his fangs and let out an uncharacteristic growl.

Blanche got better. In time she regained the use of her legs, and finished her education. Blanche married and became a schoolteacher. She was fortunate.

Between 1927 and 1962 there were 50,000 polio cases reported in our country; 4,240 people died. Many others were disabled for life. Many survived, some of them well-known: Joni Mitchell, Ontario Lieutenant David Onley, former prime minister Paul Martin and my little sister Blanche, who never forgot the winter of ’41.

(Editor’s note: The author is a retired newspaperman and former Metropolitan Toronto Police Commission chair. Mr. Westcott’s commentary was originally published April 20, 2024.)

Back to Top