Poliomyelitis Records

Mss.Ms.Coll.33

Date: 1916 | Size: 29.5 Linear feet

Abstract

The Board of Health in New York City joined with scientists from the Rockefeller Institute to study the poliomyelitis epidemic that struck the city during the summer of 1916. Using a small army of nurses and public health professionals, they canvassed the city for all reported cases of the disease, assessed conditions that might contribute to its spread, and enforced quarantine.

The records collected by the Department of Health in New York City during the poliomyelitis epidemic of 1916 were gathered by nurses who canvassed every neighborhood in the city to determine which children were stricken, the conditions that may have contributed to the disease, and whether a quarantine was in force.

Background note

A devastating disease, poliomyelitis attacks the motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, often leading to permanent paralysis or, in the most severe cases, death. The pathogen causing polio was identified by Karl Landsteiner in 1908 as a filterable virus, but the carrier of the virus and mode of transmission remained topics for heated debate for many years. Although it was known to strike the wealthy as well as the poor, in the popular imagination, the disease was indelibly associated with filth, vermin, and the poor.

The poliomyelitis epidemic that struck in the summer of 1916 was one of the largest ever in the United States, with over 27,000 cases reported from 26 states -- 8,900 in New York City alone -- and a mortality rate approaching 25%. In response, the emerging class of health professionals in New York intervened with a broad epidemiological and public health campaign using both the legal recourse available to them by virtue of new public health legislation and the old nostrum of moral suasion to convince the vulnerable into cleanliness and salubrious habits.

The center of polio research at the time was New York's own Rockefeller Institute, and drawing upon this expertise, the Department of Health formed a committee to investigate the epidemiology of the disease and to find ways of limiting its spread. Initially, their focus fell on the poorer wards of the city, particularly on the Italian immigrant communities, and working within the dominant paradigm of disease as a product of filth, the Department of Health waged a public health propaganda campaign, sponsoring fly catching or rat killing contests in the belief that these would eliminate disease vectors. Stray pets -- also putative disease vectors -- were rounded up and slaughtered by the thousands.

At the height of the epidemic in July and August, near panic set in to the city, with hundreds attempting to flee for healthier locations and the Department of Health attempting equally hard to prevent the flight, stationing police along all of the major roads to prevent unauthorized persons from entering or departing. The paradoxical finding of the research, however, was that the incidence of polio infection was ultimately not directly correlated with conditions of filth, insufficient nutrition, overcrowding, uncleanliness, or the presence of vermin. Instead, it seemed to affect the poor less severely than the middle class, From a present day perspective, the majority of children in poor communities were exposed to the polio virus early in life when the effects of the disease were less virulent, while middle class children contracted it only later. The epidemic subsided as the weather cooled in the late fall and early winter.

Scope and content

The records collected by the Department of Health in New York City during the poliomyelitis epidemic of 1916 were gathered by nurses who canvassed every neighborhood in the city to determine which children were stricken, the conditions that may have contributed to the disease, and whether a quarantine was in force. Consisting of 28.5 linear feet of records, mostly arranged by patient name, the collection is divided into four series, as originally organized:

Series I. Cases with known source of infection 1916 5 linear feet
Series II. Cases without known source of infection 1916 16.5 linear feet
Series III. Miscellaneous 1916 3 linear feet
Series IV. Card files 1916 5 linear feet

The data collected include brief case histories of each sick child, with notes on, among other things, the patient's nationality, residence, health and sanitation conditions, type of housing, breast or bottle feeding, and a survey of buildings and the surrounding area.

Collection Information

Physical description

29.5 linear feet

29.5 linear feet

Restrictions

Restrictions on Use:

Patient names may not be published.

Provenance

Gift of the Rockefeller Institute, 1964.

These records may have been kept by Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute in his capacity as vice-chair of the special committee formed in the summer of 1916 to investigate the epidemic. There is some possibility, however, that the records were transferred to the Rockefeller at some later date, where they were incorporated into the collections prior to their transfer to the APS in 1964.

Preferred citation

Cite as: New York (City). Department of Health Poliomyelitis Records, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2003.

Related material

The Simon Flexner Papers contains a quantity of additional information on the 1916 study of poliomyelitis filed under "Poliomyelitis" and under the names of individual physicians and scientists interested in polio research.

The Library also houses a collection of patient records on cerebrospinal meningitis amassed by the Rockefeller Institute, ca.1907-1913 (Ms. Coll. 34).

Bibliography

Rogers, Naomi, Dirt and Disease: Polio Before FDR (New Brunswick, N.J., 1992). Call no.: 616.83 R63d

Indexing Terms


Corporate Name(s)

  • New York (City). Board of health
  • Rockefeller Institute

Genre(s)

  • Medical records

Personal Name(s)

  • Flexner, Simon, 1863-1946

Subject(s)

  • Epidemics
  • Epidemiology
  • Nurses -- New York (State)
  • Poliomyelitis -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Public health -- New York (State) -- New York

Collection overview

19165 linear feet
191616.5 linear feet
19163 linear feet
19165 linear feet
  box Oversize

Records are handwritten and typed as tables on the back of forms entitled "Department of Health, City of New York, Special Investigation of Infantile Paralysis, Report of Nurses." Stamped at top of forms: Dr. Stack, Miss Hunt, Dr. Corneille, Miss January, and Dr. Schroeder.

10 folders.



Detailed Inventory

Series I. Cases with known source of infection
19165 linear feet
Cases: A-B
19160.5 linear feetbox 1
Cases: C-D
19160.5 linear feetbox 2
Cases: D-Gl
19160.5 linear feetbox 3
Cases: Go-K
19160.5 linear feetbox 4
Cases: L-M
19160.5 linear feetbox 5
Cases: N-R
19160.5 linear feetbox 6
Cases: S-T
19160.5 linear feetbox 7
Cases: U-Z
19160.5 linear feetbox 8
"Source of infection established: Penumonia, diphtheria, food, out of town"
19160.5 linear feetbox 9
Miscellaneous: Summary report for the Health Dept.; 2. Chicken investigations; 3. Pets; 4. Institutions; 5. Ignorance of people; 6. Rat flea investigation; 7. Autopsies; 8. Fruit
19160.5 linear feetbox 10
Series II. Cases without known source of infection
191616.5 linear feet
Cases: A
19160.5 linear feetbox 11
Cases: A-Be
19160.5 linear feetbox 12
Cases: Be-Bo
19160.5 linear feetbox 13
Cases: Bo-Bu
19160.5 linear feetbox 14
Cases: Bu-Ce
19160.5 linear feetbox 15
Cases: Ch-Co
19160.5 linear feetbox 16
Cases: Co-Da
19160.5 linear feetbox 17
Cases: Da-Du
19160.5 linear feetbox 18
Cases: Du-Fe
19160.5 linear feetbox 19
Cases: Fe-Fr
19160.5 linear feetbox 20
Cases: Fr-Gl
19160.5 linear feetbox 21
Cases: Gl-Gu
19160.5 linear feetbox 22
Cases: Gu-He
19160.5 linear feetbox 23
Cases: He-Hu
19160.5 linear feetbox 24
Cases: Hu-J
19160.5 linear feetbox 25
Cases: K-Ke
19160.5 linear feetbox 26
Cases: Ke-Ku
19160.5 linear feetbox 27
Cases: Ku-Le
19160.5 linear feetbox 28
Cases: Le-Ly
19160.5 linear feetbox 29
Cases: Ma-Mac
19160.5 linear feetbox 30
Cases: Mac-Mi
19160.5 linear feetbox 31
Cases: Mi-Mu
19160.5 linear feetbox 32
Cases: Mu-Or
19160.5 linear feetbox 33
Cases: Or-Pi
19160.5 linear feetbox 34
Cases: Pl-Re
19160.5 linear feetbox 35
Cases: Re-Ru
19160.5 linear feetbox 36
Cases: Ru-Sc
19160.5 linear feetbox 37
Cases: Sc-Si
19160.5 linear feetbox 38
Cases: Si-St
19160.5 linear feetbox 39
Cases: St-Th
19160.5 linear feetbox 40
Cases: Th-V
19160.5 linear feetbox 41
Cases: W-Wh
19160.5 linear feetbox 42
Cases: Wh-Z
19160.5 linear feetbox 43
Series III. Miscellaneous
19163 linear feet
Special cases
19160.5 linear feetbox 44
Totals; miscellaneous cases, pneumonia, early polio cases
19160.5 linear feetbox 45
Miscellaneous files M-Z; nurse assignments; medical inspector assignments; census; food -- Bronx, Queens; Sanitation
19160.5 linear feetbox 46
Notebooks kept by investigators
19160.5 linear feetbox 47
Miscellaneous records
19160.5 linear feetbox 48
Miscellaneous records
19160.5 linear feetbox 49
Series IV. Card files
19165 linear feet
Index file: Report of nurses, A-H
19160.5 linear feetbox 50
Index file: Report of nurses, H-R
19160.5 linear feetbox 51
Index file: Report of nurses, S-Z
19160.5 linear feetbox 52
Card index to cases, A-Con
19160.5 linear feetbox 53
Card index to cases, Cos-Han
19160.5 linear feetbox 54
Card index to cases, Her-Mc
19160.5 linear feetbox 55
Card index , Hospital cases, A-Z
19160.5 linear feetbox 56
Data collected from experiments on monkeys infected with polio #1
19160.5 linear feetbox 57
Data collected from experiments on monkeys infected with polio #2
19160.5 linear feetbox 58
Data collected from experiments on monkeys infected with polio #3
19160.5 linear feetbox 59
Series V. Abortive cases data collection.
  box Oversize

Records are handwritten and typed as tables on the back of forms entitled "Department of Health, City of New York, Special Investigation of Infantile Paralysis, Report of Nurses." Stamped at top of forms: Dr. Stack, Miss Hunt, Dr. Corneille, Miss January, and Dr. Schroeder.

10 folders.