Polio terrorized communities that never knew where or when it would strike. When an epidemic hit the North Carolina high country in 1944, folks responded with swift and unprecedented action.
In June 1944, the citizens of Hickory built a hospital in 54 hours to save their children from the worst polio outbreak that had ever hit the United States. Looking back now, even knowing the results — 13 wards erected, doctors and nurses flocking in by the dozens, hundreds of patients treated and released — the enormity of the undertaking still bewilders.
Water mains had to be laid, telephone wires hung, electricity hooked up. Medical equipment had to be found, along with beds and blankets and mattresses and cribs. The hospital’s kitchen needed stoves and refrigerators; the laundry room needed washing machines. In the wards, children would want fans and toys and tables and lamps. Doctors and nurses had to be recruited, as well as volunteers to cook and clean and stand guard in case of fire, drivers to bring sick children down from the mountains — and ambulances to carry them in — carpenters and plumbers and electricians to keep working even after the first patients began arriving.
All this occurred at the height of a war that had sent many of the region’s men into battle and its women into the nursing corps. Hospital construction began on June 22, less than three weeks after D-Day. American forces were fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, and the Nazis were still bombing Britain. On the home front, rationing kept supplies scarce — the hospital couldn’t purchase can openers — and anyone with money was buying war bonds.
But the need in Hickory was critical. The area’s polio epidemic began in early June; a small front-page item in the June 7 Hickory Daily Record reported that a 17-month-old girl suffering from infantile paralysis had been admitted to Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Another was diagnosed, and then a few more.
By mid-June, the paper was reporting that “an epidemic of infantile paralysis definitely exists in Catawba County,” and Charlotte’s isolation wards had closed. So had hospitals in Gastonia and Asheville. Patients would have had to journey instead to Raleigh or Richmond, Virginia. “And because polio is so extremely painful, bumpy roads and long distances would have made that a trip of agony,” says Melinda Herzog, executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association. They needed something close by.
Creating a solution
Hickory quickly became the answer. “One of the doctors who came here said in an article that it was like dropping a pebble in the water; the first cases were around Hickory, and the ripples just kept coming out,” says Herzog, who helped organize an exhibit at the Harper House/Hickory History Center dedicated to the hospital.
The site chosen for the hospital was the Lake Hickory Health Camp, built the year before for children at risk of tuberculosis. The camp consisted of 62 wooded acres along the Catawba River and a single stone building. “That became the base structure where the most critical patients were taken,” Herzog says.
On the camp grounds, workers started constructing what Herzog describes as “a MASH hospital in the North Carolina wilderness” — tent wards with wood floors and walls and canvas tops, which they shelled in with permanent roofs as summer gave way to fall and then winter. Early on, indoor space was so limited that doctors evaluated incoming patients from a small tent on the lawn. Awash in sick youngsters in the arms of their parents, their paralyzed limbs strapped to homemade splints, the lawn sometimes looked like “a military triage area,” says Heather Deckelnick, site manager for the Catawba County Historical Association’s Hickory History Center, where the Miracle of Hickory exhibit is housed.
The 54 breakneck hours that transformed the camp into the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital became known as the “Miracle of Hickory.” The achievement did seem miraculous: On Thursday, June 22, 1944, campers were still picking blackberries in the woods, and the following Saturday afternoon, the first five polio patients were being shown to their beds.
Credit for this achievement belongs in large part to three local physicians: C.H. Crabtree, North Carolina representative for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes); Gaither Hahn, the National Foundation’s Catawba County chair; and H.C. Whims, health officer for Lincoln and Catawba counties, who called for calm and then for quarantines. When the sick beds in Charlotte and Gastonia — which Crabtree had helped organize — filled and the polio crisis teetered on the edge of catastrophe, these three men conceived the idea for the hospital.
Other doctors also rushed to the cause. In the 1998 book, The Grit Behind the Miracle, High Point University English professor Alice Sink discusses Hickory surgeon Harley E. Henry, summoned by Hahn in late June to bring a desperately needed iron lung. Henry delivered the respirator and stayed through the next day to help operate it. Then he kept on staying.
Locating nurses proved another problem. Many were at war. Sink writes that Hahn and Crabtree put out a national call, and the Red Cross helped enlist women who, “without hesitation or remorse, left salaried nursing positions from as far away as California. Many had never even heard of Hickory, North Carolina.” Nursing students from nearby schools boarded buses bound for Hickory every Friday afternoon to spend their weekends treating children at the polio hospital.
Meanwhile, county health nurses traveling the backcountry and manning mountain outposts often posed the first line of defense during the polio epidemic. “They were the ones who had built relationships with the rural families,” Herzog says, “and sometimes they were the first to recognize the disease.”
Anything to help
The hospital at Hickory and North Carolina’s widening emergency drew medical specialists and polio experts from around the country. Doctors arrived from Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission Clinic. From the Cook County Health Unit of Chicago, Illinois, came Edward Piszczek, who ran regular training sessions on how to quickly diagnose polio, which had early symptoms that could be misleadingly generic: headache, nausea, slight fever. “It looked like flu,” Herzog says. “But if you waited as much as four days, you could really be in trouble.” Once the neck pain and muscle stiffness set in, chances for recovery grew slim.
From Yale, research doctor Dorothy Horstmann visited stricken families to collect samples of blood, sweat, dust, and food, hoping to uncover what caused the disease. Dressed like a county nurse, “she went house to house, constantly exposing herself to polio,” Herzog says, “and she was stoned — people threw rocks at her car when she drove through their neighborhoods because they were afraid she was spreading the disease.”
Most local residents, though, threw themselves into the hospital project. “The stories of what people sacrificed and the staggering efforts they made are endless,” says Herzog. The March of Dimes paid the hospital’s operating costs and medical expenses, but Hickory residents came up with the $66,000 to build it. Donations of money and goods poured in from local businesses, church groups, and families.
Sink’s book describes dentists and artists hammering nails and wealthy women scrubbing floors. Working day and night under the glow of floodlights, firemen installed hydrants and hoses, linesmen wired the hospital for electricity, and state guardsmen cleared the grounds of brush and trash. Convicts dug three miles of water-main ditches to connect the city to the site. “In homes throughout Hickory,” Sink writes, others turned over “spare bedrooms to doctors and nurses. … Hickory policemen became volunteer drivers.” Mothers “lent their baby cribs, and when additional ones were needed, carpenters at the hospital built more.”
Herzog recalls the Rev. Samuel Stroup, pastor at the Church of the Ascension. “Whatever the hospital needed, he went out and found it,” she says. “He talked industries out of their electric fans to keep the hospital cool in the August heat.” When Stroup heard that playing the harmonica might help patients strengthen their stricken lungs, “he went out and got hundreds of harmonicas.”
As patients began showing up from all over North Carolina and some neighboring states and the hospital’s fame grew — it made news across the country, and a July 31, 1944, Life magazine feature published four pages of photographs from the wards — Hickory became known as Polio City. “People avoided driving through town, and if they did, they rolled up their windows and sped through without stopping because they were afraid of catching polio,” Herzog says. “Local businesses suffered. It was hard on everybody.”
Hickory residents were afraid, too. The 1944 epidemic wasn’t North Carolina’s first experience with polio’s wildfire contagion, and it wouldn’t be the last; another 11 years would pass before the Salk vaccine became widely distributed. Building a hospital on the outskirts of town meant accepting a terrifying risk. “It’s hard to understand now how intense the fear was,” Herzog says.
During the 1944 epidemic, hundreds turned to the Hickory hospital. Only 12 patients died there — one of the country’s lowest-ever death rates for polio. On March 5, 1945, nine months after the hospital began accepting patients, it closed. The epidemic had subsided: Of the 454 patients treated in Hickory, only 88 remained, and now Charlotte Memorial Hospital had room for them.
The Hickory hospital became apartments for returning GIs and later an armory for a United States Army Reserve unit. Today the old stone building stands at what is now Jaycee Park, and baseball diamonds occupy the site where the MASH tents once stood.
“People in Hickory still remember what they did here, and they’re still proud. They ought to be,” Herzog says. “These were hard-scrabble people, and when they saw a need, they took care of it. They didn’t stop to ponder; they just moved to action.”
Lydialyle Gibson lives in Illinois.
to know more
Hickory History Center Exhibit
Part of an ongoing effort to research and document the area’s response to the 1944 epidemic, a three-year exhibit on display at the Hickory History Center includes artifacts from the hospital — leg braces, crutches, and an iron lung — as well as photographs, newspaper clippings, first-hand accounts, and footage from the wards.
“As this episode falls into the memory of history,” says Melinda Herzog, executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association, “this might be our last chance to catch the people who were there and piece together what happened.”
HICKORY HISTORY CENTER
310 North Center Street
Hickory, N.C. 28601