A negative pressure ventilator, commonly referred to as an iron lung, is on display at the Jay County Historical Society. Iron lungs were commonly used during the polio outbreak in the late 1940s for patients who were unable to breathe on their own because of a loss in control of muscles. Iron lungs were shipped into Jay County in the 1949 “summer of fear,” during which the county had 109 cases of polio in a two-month span. (The Commercial Review/Chris Schanz)
A negative pressure ventilator, commonly referred to as an iron lung, is on display at the Jay County Historical Society. Iron lungs were commonly used during the polio outbreak in the late 1940s for patients who were unable to breathe on their own because of a loss in control of muscles. Iron lungs were shipped into Jay County in the 1949 “summer of fear,” during which the county had 109 cases of polio in a two-month span. (The Commercial Review/Chris Schanz)
Jay County has been down this road before.

Though the county now has just one confirmed case of COVID-19, more than seven decades ago it found itself in the midst of a polio epidemic, one of the worst in the nation.

A July 1, 1949, headline in The Commercial Review signified the beginning of that summer of fear. “Four Known Polio Cases in Jay County.” All four were children; one was 12 years old, another 5 and the others were 3.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disease caused by poliovirus that can result in paralysis and can be deadly. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs.

The virus is contracted through the mouth by ingesting water or food that has been contaminated by the fecal matter by an infected person. The CDC says it then multiplies in the intestine, and the feces then passes it on to others.

But none of that was known in 1949.

No one knew how polio was passing from host to host.

Just one day after the first four cases were reported in the county, the number jumped to six and on July 7 there were seven.

The next day the disease took its first local life on July 8.

“Diane Wunderlich, 6, of Portland, died Friday morning in the Holy Family Hospital in Knox as a result of infantile paralysis,” The Commercial Review reported. “The child, the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Wunderlich of Portland, was in Knox with its parents, visiting, when it became ill. The family returned to Portland with the small child and when its condition became worse they returned to Knox for further medical attention.”

The cases began to grow exponentially.

On July 11, the number doubled from seven to 14, as the county began a stay-at-home order — much like those across the nation now — for families impacted by polio.

“It is expected that the parents of all children who have contacted known cases of Polio will isolate their children, by keeping them away from all other children and allowing no other children to play with them,” an official statement in The CR said. “They should keep them out of all public places, such as theatres, churches, schools or any place where groups of people are in attendance.”

Despite this warning, the number of cases increased and the epidemic was still a month away from its peak.

By July 21, there were 30 cases, and at that time two unprecedented actions were taken: the Jay County Fair was canceled for the first time in 78 years, and Portland city health officer Dr. George Morrison banned all children younger than 18 from attending church or Sunday school.

Morrison’s efforts did little to curb the spread, however. Four more cases were reported July 22. Another seven the next day and a total of 44 on July 26. The same day, it was reported there were 157 cases statewide, giving Jay County nearly a third (28 percent) of the total.

The disease then claimed two more lives — a 17-year-old Portland boy and a young farmer from the area of New Mount Pleasant. On July 28, ripples were sent through the community following the death of 9-month-old girl, who was being rushed from Jay County Hospital to Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie. She died in Albany.

Just two days later, as the number of cases jumped to 57, a headline told of another drastic act by Morrison.

“PORTLAND, JAY COUNTY CLOSED, ORDER OF HEALTH OFFICIAL.”

Morrison banned all public gatherings in Portland and countywide.

Jay County Hospital had no way to isolate polio patients, so they were taken to hospitals in Muncie, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio. But by Aug. 6, the local hospital set up an emergency annex of 20 beds with at the American Legion Post on Walnut Street in Portland. 

Beds were brought in by the American Red Cross. Carpenters volunteered to make shelves for storage. Wires were stretched to help section off beds. Two iron lungs, one of which is today on display at Jay County Historical Museum, were brought in from a factory in Muncie. Respirators, hot pack machines and oxygen tents were also brought in.

A week later the polio cases in the county rose to 87, and more fatalities mounted. 

The next seven days brought good news, though. Only six cases were reported, so Morrison relaxed his ban. Church services were able to continue, but not Sunday school. Taverns, pool rooms and clubs could reopen but had to close by 7 p.m.

By Aug. 15, confirmed and suspected cases hit 98, and more were reported daily.

But then almost as quickly as it began nearly two months earlier, the epidemic slowed. 

Eleven days later, with the number of new cases slowing and the total sitting at 109, Morrison lifted his ban.

And by Aug. 30, the hospital annex closed as its services were no longer needed, although county residents still being hospitalized around the state.

The CDC says polio caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year in the early 1950s. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine that became widely used in 1955, and another oral polio vaccine was developed in 1961. Together, the vaccines helped cases fall to fewer than 100 nationwide in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the ’70s before the disease was eradicated in 1979.

But for nearly two months in 1949, Jay County was crippled by the polio outbreak. In a 1999 story, Shari (Younts) Franklin, who contracted polio that fateful summer, recalled area residents treating the disease like another that came more than three decades later.

“My mom (Virginia Younts) told me when people saw her walking me in a baby carriage outside, they crossed the other side of the street,” she said. “Polio was like AIDS was (in the 1980s).