Texan Paul Alexander, 70, was unlucky enough to fall victim to an appalling epidemic that raged across the U.S. in 1952 – poliomyelitis, otherwise known as polio. And Alexander, aged six at the time, was one of the small minority of those unfortunates who were affected by the poliovirus and then had to suffer lifelong disability as a result. Sadly his impairment has meant a life sentence trapped horizontally inside a now archaic piece of medical apparatus called an iron lung. But, as we shall see, Alexander did not just lie down and accept his prognosis.
New generations are lucky to have escaped many of the medical horrors that were all too commonplace in human history. Before medical science had accrued its current wealth of knowledge, there were many illnesses that doomed humankind to terrible consequences, from severe, lifelong impediments through to death. And one of the most feared of these merciless diseases was polio, which also had another name – infantile paralysis.
Poliomyelitis only affects humans and is especially cruel in that it largely attacks very young children. Polio has been a scourge of the human race for millennia, and even Ancient Egyptian art portrays its crippling effects. However, the ailment was not clinically defined until the 18th century, when British doctor Michael Underwood wrote a paper on childhood diseases. He described it as “a debility of the lower extremities.”