Monday, June 6, 2016

Books of the Day: When polio stalked North Carolina

Polio is now largely forgotten in America. It was declared eradicated from the nation in 1979, having been beaten down to a handful of cases each year for over a decade.

But for 65 years, it was one of the most ruthless, feared illnesses known. It struck out of nowhere, and left its victims paralyzed, or dead. From the first recorded US outbreak in Louisiana in 1841, the disease lay dormant half a century. Then came 26 cases in Boston in 1893, and 132 cases in Vermont, in 1894. It grew and spread. By 1916, 27,000 Americans were stricken and 6,000 died.

Polio became an annual summer peril in US cities; randomly, anywhere. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s near-fatal bout in 1921, and his remarkable comeback over the next quarter century, focused attention and generated more research funds, but no cure.

The years after Roosevelt’s death in 1945 saw a sharp spike in cases, culminating in 1952, when nearly 60,000 children were stricken. By then, two competing vaccines were being tested: Jonas Salk’s was licensed in 1955; Albert Sabin’s a few years later.

When I was a boy, in eastern North Carolina over fifty years ago,it was common to know people who’d had “slight” cases as kids. They limped a bit, or had a disabled arm. TV and movie characters appeared in them, giving me the worst sense of claustrophobia as an able-bodied child.

I remember going, with my sister and parents, around the corner to the elementary school cafeteria in 1962, were everyone lined up and was given a sugar cube dosed with the two drops of the Sabin vaccine.

As a teenager, my allergist was wheelchair-bound, paralyzed while in medical school. He switched from pediatrics to allergies, and it was in his office I first saw how accessible design worked. A few years later, I was fortunate to attend St. Andrews Presbyterian College, the first school in the world designed from the ground up to be completely handicapped accessible.

Polio was eradicated from the United States in 1979, and the worldwide toll was down to 200 cases in 2012. Other diseases have stepped up to take polio’s place sin our closets of anxieties.

To mark the eradication of polio, and its fading from memory, Henry Bemis Books offers two memoirs of those days from our North Carolina history shelves.

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Robinson, Luther, We Made Peace With Polio (Broadman Press, no stated edition, 1960). LOC 60-5194. A Rowan County, North Carolina elementary school principal’s memoir of the polio waves of the early 1950s, and how it struck his family. Part of a substantial body of books and memoirs on the last days of the crippling disease and its long-term aftermath. Hardcover, blue boards, dust jacket worn, taped together and a bit fragile. Otherwise, good condition. Octavo, 165 pp. Rare. HBB price: $35 obo.

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Martha Mason, Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung (Down Home Books, stated first printing, 2003). ISBN 1-878086-95-2. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, very fine condition. This memoir, dictated by a Cleveland County, North Carolina woman who spent 61 years in an iron lung, is the remarkable tale of what happened after she didn’t die within a year of her illness, as doctors predicted.  Quarto, 300 pages. HBB price: $45 obo.

It is really only possible to do Martha Mason’s life- and her book- by running her 2009 New York Times obituary in full:

Ever since the 1940s, when she was a girl in a small Southern town, Martha Mason dreamed of being a writer. But it was not till nearly half a century later, with the aid of a voice-activated computer, that she could begin setting a memoir down on paper.

Published in 2003, Ms. Mason’s memoir, “Breath,” is not well known outside the Southeast, or perhaps even outside North Carolina, where she was born, grew up and died. It was published by a small regional house, Down Home Press, and was not widely reviewed. But the truly significant thing is that the book was written at all.

Ms. Mason died on Monday at her home in Lattimore, N.C. She was 71 and had lived for more than 60 years in an iron lung.

Her death was confirmed by a friend, Mary Dalton, who said Ms. Mason had died in her sleep.

Paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio, Ms. Mason was one of the last handful of Americans, perhaps 30 people, who live full time in iron lungs. There is no documented case of any American’s having done so for quite as long as she, David W. Rose, the archivist of the March of Dimes Foundation, said on Friday.

Ms. Mason is the subject of a documentary film, “Martha in Lattimore,” released in 2005 and directed by Ms. Dalton. She also appeared in “The Final Inch,” a documentary about polio that was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

From her horizontal world — a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder that encased all but her head — Ms. Mason lived a life that was by her own account fine and full, reading voraciously, graduating with highest honors from high school and college, entertaining and eventually writing.

She chose to remain in an iron lung, she often said, for the freedom it gave her. It let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays, as newer, smaller ventilators might require. It took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.

“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Ms. Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.”

Ms. Mason’s only immediate survivors are her aides, Ginger Justice and Melissa Boheler, whom she considered family.

Martha Ann Mason was born on May 31, 1937, and reared in Lattimore, a small town about 50 miles west of Charlotte. In September 1948, when she was 11, Martha went to bed one night feeling achy. She did not tell her parents because she did not want to compound their sorrow: that day, they had buried her 13-year-old brother, Gaston, who had died of polio a few days before.

Martha spent the next year in hospitals before being sent home in an iron lung. Doctors told her parents she would live another year at most.

She survived, she later said, because she was endlessly curious and there was so much to learn.

With daily visits from her teachers, Martha resumed her studies, graduating first in her high school class. She entered Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, N.C., receiving an associate’s degree in 1958.

Afterward, Ms. Mason and her iron lung were transported by bakery truck to Winston-Salem, where she enrolled in Wake Forest College. There, she joined a student group seeking to integrate the campus. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest in 1960.

At both colleges — they are now universities — Ms. Mason lived with her parents in a campus apartment and attended lectures by intercom. At both colleges, she graduated first in her class.

Returning to Lattimore, Ms. Mason began writing for the local newspaper, dictating her articles to her mother, Euphra. Not long afterward, Ms. Mason’s father, Willard, suffered a major heart attack and became an invalid, requiring Euphra to care for him, too. There was no more time for taking dictation. For decades afterward, Ms. Mason wrote only in her head, publishing nothing. Her father died in 1977.

Perhaps only in a place like Lattimore, whose current population is not much more than 400, could Ms. Mason have thrived as well as she did. For if Ms. Mason could not go to the town, then the town was quite prepared to come to her. The doctor visited regularly, of course, but so did all the neighbors and the neighbors’ neighbors. So did members of the local fire department, who came by during power failures to make sure her backup generator was working.

Ms. Mason often gave dinner parties — she ate lying down, with her guests around the table and the iron lung pushed up beside it — and savored lively conversation, good gossip and the occasional bawdy story. Amid the rhythmic whoosh ... whoosh of the iron lung, the local book club met in her home. High school graduates stopped by so she could admire them in their caps and gowns, as did just-married couples in their wedding finery. Souvenir magnets from faraway places, gifts from traveling friends, adorned the yellow exterior of Ms. Mason’s iron lung like labels on a steamer trunk.

But small-town life could have its drawbacks. “She’s an intellectual, yet the local video store was not going to have ‘Wild Strawberries’ for her to rent,” Ms. Dalton, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “She could talk to anybody, but she needed that kind of intellectual stimulation, too. And there were years when I imagine that was a little hard to come by.”

That changed in the mid-1990s, when Ms. Mason acquired a voice-activated computer with email capability and Internet access. The computer brought her the world. It also let her contemplate writing her memoir, which is subtitled “Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung.”

She began the book in tribute to her mother. In the late 1980s, after a series of strokes, Euphra Mason descended into dementia and abusiveness, occasionally slapping and cursing her daughter. Ms. Mason insisted that her mother remain at home. From her iron lung, she took over the running of the household, planning meals, paying bills and arranging for her mother’s care.

After her mother’s death in 1998, Ms. Mason began work on her book in earnest. There, in her childhood home, with a microphone at her mouth and the music of the iron lung for company, she wrote her life story sentence by sentence in her soft Southern voice, with her own breath.


Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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