Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio by Kerry Highley

‘Most Australians born before 1960 can remember the widespread vaccination campaigns that were initiated against polio with first the Salk, then Sabin vaccines.’

I do remember the vaccination campaigns against polio, I remember standing in a queue in Launceston, Tasmania with my father and my brother to receive the Salk vaccine.  This memory sticks in my mind: my father was not a man who did much standing, and he was never a man who enjoyed queuing.  My father was a polio survivor.  He contracted the virus in 1951, not long after his 21st birthday.  He struggled to walk again, and he never recovered the strength he lost.

Before I read this book, I was aware of the work of Sister Elizabeth Kenny.  She was viewed as a hero in my home: treatment based on her methods is what got my father walking.  But I did not know her methods were considered controversial.  I read with interest (and sadness) about the ‘more orthodox’ methods used and supported by Dr Jean Macnamara in which limbs were not mobilised.  I read about the resistance Sister Elizabeth Kenny received to her methods (especially in Australia), and I read about the backgrounds of both women. 

‘Elizabeth Kenny shook the complacency of the medical establishment which firmly believed that muscles affected by the poliovirus remained frail and vulnerable for a lengthy period , and that gentle movement of limbs in the early stages of paralysis was dangerous.’

Many of those who survived polio were left with degrees of disability: June Middleton in Victoria, Australia (1926 – 2009) spent more than 60 years in an iron lung, while many survivors who walked did so with the aid of calipers.   The world was even less accommodating of disability then than it is now.

I also read about the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines.  And was reminded of the need for vaccine development ‘to hasten slowly’ when reading about a defective vaccine in the USA in 1955 which resulted in 40 000 cases of polio, leaving 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis and killing 10.  I hope that those working on a vaccine for COVID-19 are mindful of these lessons.

While this is a book about a particular disease and the people who suffered from it, there are lessons relevant to all pandemics.  Polio vaccination remains as important today as it did when my brother, father and I queued in Launceston sixty years ago.

‘There remains no cure for polio.’

My thanks to Janine Rizzetti whose review of this book led me to read it. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith