Near the end of the 19th century polio, short for poliomyelitis virus, spread around the world in epidemic proportions, and for fifty years it threatened the entire human population. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered the lifelong effects of the disease, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). The foundation was responsible for meeting the high cost required for the care and rehabilitation of thousands of children. They sponsored scientific research towards the future eradication of the disease and they promoted public health education and hygiene programs. Between the years 1947-1951 Idaho received more than $1.7 million from the NFIP for financial assistance to polio patients.
The foundation created a network of care and treatment that hoped to meet the demands of the devastating disease. In 1949 the Idaho Department of Public Health found that Idaho’s polio outbreaks were much higher than the national average . Indeed, child welfare had become a growing concern in Idaho during the early half of the 20th century, as the public looked for help in fighting the scourge. Fundraising was essential as the federal program relied directly on contributions from community fundraising. For years civic organizations like the rotary and fraternal organizations like the Elks took the lead in local communities, raising funds for polio.
In 1926 the Crippled and Defective Children’s Clinic opened in Boise, with the single goal of caring for children who suffered from the malformation of polio. In 1940 the Crippled Children’s Society was organized under the Easter Seal. And in 1947 the Elks Convalescent Home for Children was opened. The community had responded to this reality through fund raising and mobilization of charitable organizations.
The annual March of Dimes drive received a lot of positive public attention and the community was gracious and willing to donate to the cause. Compared to other states Idaho received a large share of the funds released nationally from the NFIP, but Idaho held an even larger portion of its total funds from what it raised locally. The foundation quarters was run by the fraternal Order of the Eagles under Lloyd Killian, and was located in the historic Eastman building, once located at the corner of Ninth and Main Streets. The organization, in addition to money received from the foundation, relied on volunteer contributions from the community through mail and business solicitations, and through special events like Basque dances, the Marching Mothers annual fashion show, the “Buffalo club party”, and other public and private auctions . The money went towards emergency needs and immediate care of polio victims, but also towards the long-term care that was required when children became handicapped and required extra care.
The Iron Lung (pictured at top) was developed in 1927 by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw. Some strains of the polio virus caused paralysis, some cases were temporary, and others left more permanent danger. One of the biggest dangers was the paralysis of a person’s abdomen and diaphragm–the large muscle that controls the lungs–which meant a person could die of suffocation. The external ventilator used a high pressure atmosphere created within the tube to compress the lungs, forcing the individual to exhale. Then the pump would switch, creating a negative pressure, forcing the lungs to rise, and an individual to inhale. In many cases a patient’s condition would improve, and they would regain the ability to breathe on their own. Without the respirator thousands of children would simply have quit breathing. Boise received its first iron lung in 1949, when they were still high tech and expensive, short in supply and high in demand. The March of Dimes was responsible for procuring iron lungs for patients all over the country just as they were in Boise.
The Idaho State Elks Convalescents Home was founded in 1947 in an attempt to meet the needs of polio patients and their families. By the 1950s polio numbers were on the rise, and the cost of treatment was not cheap. In the event that a child survived the initial illness, but suffered its devastating effects, the families were faced with the additional cost of rehabilitation and even long-term care. The Elks home filled this need in the community, and the NFIP funded the home through fundraising from organizations such as the March of Dimes. To the director of the NFIP, the concern for community in Idaho was apparent in their willingness to organize and fund such important welfare programs.
The successful inoculation measures in the 1950s slowed the outbreak of the disease, and by 1955 the home changed its name to the Idaho Elks Rehabilitation Center as it shifted its focus from polio to other rehabilitation and care needs of the valley. In 1957 the Elks moved to their present facility.
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1. Idaho Daily Statesman September 1, 1949
2. IdahoDaily Statesman January 18, 1952
Images from Idaho State Historical Society and the Idaho Statesman collection at Boise State University Special Collections