The 1940s: The Miracle of Hickory
When polio strikes children in the Piedmont, doctors, nurses, and volunteers rise to the occasion to build an emergency quarantine hospital.
by Philip Gerard
The epicenter of the outbreak, Hickory, is the logical place for parents in outlying rural areas to bring their stricken kids — but the town of 15,000 has no hospital. C.H. Crabtree of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis travels to Hickory to investigate. There, he confers with Dr. A. Gaither Hahn, chairman of the Catawba County Chapter of the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and Dr. H.C. Whims, a dual county health officer.
They agree that Hickory needs to open a hospital, fast. Dr. Hahn offers a proposal: Lake Hickory Health Camp, three miles outside of town. It has just one U-shaped stone building, erected by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. It’s a “fresh air” camp on more than 60 acres of woodland, where underprivileged kids can enjoy the freedom and benefits of being outdoors. Dr. Whims has authority over the facility …Dr. Whims calls Mrs. Earle Townsend at the camp and directs her to send all the campers home within the hour. He organizes a convoy of cars to ferry the campers home. Then he enlists Mrs. Townsend as a dietician for the .. Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital.
The three doctors each take on clearly defined duties: Dr. Whims supervises renovating the camp as a hospital and adding wards — first Army tents, and later, more durable wooden structures connected by boardwalks. Dr. Hahn finds supplies and equipment. Crabtree uses his national contacts to secure funds and recruit staff from all over the United States. Within weeks, the hospital fields a remarkable cadre of doctors, nurses, and therapists from cities like Winston-Salem, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and medical schools at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere.
Student nurses — known as “Angels of Mercy” — are recruited from nursing schools, bused in to work on weekends and days off, and, like other staff, boarded in the homes of local families for free. Police officers taxi them back and forth, and regular cab drivers work without pay. The school district lends a bus.
Dr. Whims must quickly find someone who can create a blueprint for a new hospital, so he calls on a team of local architects: Mr. and Mrs. Q.E. Herman. … The Hermans sketch plans for the facility on the spot, and construction begins that same day.
Truckloads of donated lumber and other materials arrive from Herman-Sipe, Hutton & Bourbonnais, and Cline Lumber Company. When it is used up, more trucks arrive with more lumber. Floodlights sprout on the building site so that work can continue after dark.
Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers all lend their expertise. Lawyers, dentists, secretaries, bankers — everyone pitches in, fetching and carrying, hammering and painting, cleaning up debris and hauling away trash, scrubbing and cleaning the old building. Prison work gangs hand-dig a three-mile water main conduit. A contingent from the women’s prison in Raleigh is granted temporary parole to staff the kitchen and laundry.
Radio station WHKY broadcasts a list of items the hospital needs: beds, cribs, washing machines, refrigerators, office furniture, sheets, even a can opener — and it all shows up, along with a small army of volunteers to staff the offices and comfort the victims’ parents. Farmers truck in fresh fruits and vegetables. Women deliver meals they have made at home.
…Dr. Hahn finagles 55 Army hospital beds and mattresses.
…Fifty-four hours after the architects complete their sketches, the first patients are admitted to the sudden hospital. And they keep arriving — in private cars and ambulances. When the ambulances are all taken, they come in hearses lent by local undertakers.
The public health officials make an early, crucial decision: treatment will be color-blind. The next patient — white or black — gets the next bed.
They procure iron lungs that use changes in air pressure to inflate the lungs of patients — the only treatment that can save a polio victim with paralyzed breathing muscles. With luck, the stricken children will progress beyond paralysis and escape the iron lung after a few weeks or months.
The treatment is as humane as can be managed with such a debilitating disease, and includes Kenny treatment massage and hot packs: strips of woolen blankets boiled in water for 20 minutes, wrung dry, then wrapped around the stricken limb. The aroma of boiled wool is one that many patients will remember for a lifetime.
When no longer needed by the patient, the woolen hot packs are burned. No garbage or medical waste is allowed to leave the facility.
During the next nine months, the staff of the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital treats 454 children afflicted with polio. They do not save all of them: 12 die, and many more are paralyzed, some permanently. Although the death rate is remarkably low, Hickory can’t escape being called “Polio City.”
For the March of Dimes — which brags about Hickory on its posters — and in magazines around the country, the hospital becomes “the Miracle of Hickory.”
But “miracle” implies a kind of magical happening, a supernatural intervention. In fact, the successful effort to save so many children comes about because of a series of brave and timely decisions. It comes about because of determination and a willingness of people to share what resources they have in a time of scarcity. And it comes about out of community pride, out of an old-fashioned American spirit of can-do, and out of abundant compassion. It is precisely the opposite of waiting for divine intervention: Ordinary people work together to save the day themselves. The people of Hickory turn a nightmare emergency into a shared legacy.
“Polio City” — once a moniker of fear — becomes a badge of honor. On March 5, 1945, with the worst of the crisis past, Hickory transfers its remaining patients to the hospital in Charlotte.
Citation: Gerard, Philip. “The Miracle of Hickory.” Our State, https://www.ourstate.com/the-miracle-of-hickory/. Accessed 22 August 2023.
- Three doctors, Dr. Whims, Dr. Hahn, and Dr. Crabtree, were mentioned in the article. Identify the actions each doctor took in order for the community to come together and their responsibilities.
- According to the article, “The people of Hickory turn a nightmare emergency into a shared legacy.” What evidence does the author use to back up this statement? Give examples that highlight how the community came together in order for the hospital to admit patients 54 hours after the architects had finished the plans.
- 1944 was the time of Jim Crow Laws in the South when public facilities were segregated, or separated, by race. For the nine months of the hospital’s existence, regardless of race, hometown, or ability to pay, the hospital cared for 454 children with polio including African Americans and one Native American child. It was likely the first non-segregated health care facility in North Carolina. The article states, “The public officials make an early, crucial decision: treatment will be color-blind. The next patient–white or black–gets the next bed.”
- What can you gather about the public officials? Why do you think this was a crucial decision?
Epicenter: central point of something
Rural: countryside rather than a town or city
Stricken: afflicted by disease or sorrow
Confers: has discussions; exchanges opinions
Convoy: group of vehicles traveling together
Dietician: person who is trained on healthy eating or what to eat for certain conditions
Cadre: group of ships or vehicles traveling together
Conduit: pipe or tube for moving water or fluid
Contingent: group of people united by some common feature, forming part of a larger group
Finagles: obtains (something) by indirect or involved means
Hearses: vehicles to transport dead bodies
Procure: obtain (something), especially with care or effort.
Humane: having or showing compassion
Debilitating: making someone very weak
Kenny treatment massage: use of hot packs and muscle strengthening on patients with polio
Intervention: action taken to improve a situation
Divine: of, from, or like God or a god
Legacy: anything handed down from the past
Moniker: a name