History of Chiropractic’s Fight Against Polio

(From the September 2005 The “G”Note)

Wiese G. That They May Walk Again: A History of Chiropractic’s Fight Against Polio. Chiropractic Journal of Australia June 2005; 35(2):42-56.

ABSTRACT: Introduction: The first half of the 20th century was plagued by the poliomyelitis epidemic. Franklin Roosevelt was the highest-profile victim and did much to publicise the plight of polio victims, most of whom were children. Sister Kenny from Australia also became a household name because of her success in treating the victims of paralysis. Medicine, chiropractic, and other manual therapies rallied to find a cure and prevention for the dreaded affliction. This paper gives a brief review of polio and presents an account of chiropractic efforts in addressing the polio epidemic. Methods: The author identified the literature by searching PubMed, EbscoHost, WorldCat, the Index to Chiropractic Literature, and the Palmer College Online catalogue databases. The sources were then reviewed and a summary of articles analysed. Results: As early as 1909, success in treating victims of polio was reported in the chiropractic literature, and chiropractors wrote frequently on the subject of polio during the 1930s through the 1950s. Techniques for care during the acute phase of the disease, rehabilitation of victims, testimonials by patients reporting positive outcomes of chiropractic care, and theories of prevention were topics receiving chiropractic attention. After introduction of the Salk and Sabin vaccines, articles on polio appeared less frequently in the chiropractic literature, with most warn-ing against the side effects of the vaccines. In the late 1980s, the literature addressed post-polio syndrome and chiropractic’s positive results. Discussion: The chiropractic focus on polio was largely unnoticed or undocumented by the mainstream and scientific press. The author asserts that the profession’s positive contributions would have had a higher profile resulting in the potential of helping more victims of polio if chiropractic successes had been published in peer-reviewed, indexed literature. This paper is intended to help ameliorate the lack of access to documentation of the chiropractic contribution to the fight against polio.

COMMENTS: Most chiropractors know a little of how many chiropractors in the 1940s and 1950s helped those with acute poliomyelitis, and more recently, those with post-polio syndrome. The story of Winifred Gardella has been told to many patients – her chiropractor, Dr. Lewis Robertson, practiced in Santa Cruz, California. Dr. Robertson published a regimen of how he was able to help those afflicted with acute polio. I included some of the information on chiropractic care of acute polio in an appendix in Chapter 13 of the textbook, Pediatric Chiropractic.

This article reviews the history of polio management, medically and chiropractically. It is likely that many younger chiropractors and chiropractic students are not well-versed in this part of the chiropractic story. Chiropractors helped a lot of people with polio, and there were several chiropractic polio clinics.

Dr. E.R. Dunn operated a chiropractic polio clinic. His 5-day approach to acute polio involved keeping the patient prone and warm, adjustment 4 times a day, and deep tissue massage. He found that more chronic cases took months to years to regain normal function. Kentucky had a chiropractic polio program in the 1950s. Most of these children were cared for by Dr. Lorraine Golden who would later found Kentuckiana.

It comes as no surprise that the “March of Dimes” and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis refused to fund chiropractic services. This outraged mothers who wished to have their children receive care from Spears Hospital.

Chiropractors wrote about the benefits of chiropractic for polio/infantile paralysis since the early days of the profession. The author bemoans the fact the chiropractors did not write well-documented case reports. Most of the articles that they wrote were testimonials or case reports that were not well-detailed.