Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exeter in the Age of Polio

"Historically Speaking", by Barbara Rimkunas, Exeter News-Letter, July 23, 2010

Under the headline of “Great Medical Victory,” the Exeter News-Letter announced in April of 1955, “A crowning achievement, and a milestone in medical history came Tuesday with the announcement of success for the Salk polio vaccine.” Within a week, the Rockingham County Medical Society was discussing plans to hold mass immunizations in the county. Time was of the essence; polio season typically occurred during the summer months. By late May, the first clinics were underway. “It is a tribute to the common senseness of adults that a vast majority of parents reasoned that the advantages of child inoculation far outweighed the over-publicized risks,” commented the News-Letter.

Strangely, Polio epidemics were fostered by improvements in sanitation and medical care. Transmitted by fecal-oral route, it was easily passed around among children. In earlier - and less hygienic - times, most children encountered the virus early in life. As the germ theory became better understood in the 20th century, personal hygiene took a great leap forward simply by encouraging children to wash their hands before eating. By the early 1900s, most of the fecal-oral illnesses could be prevented by simply keeping clean. But oddly, this meant that there was little early exposure to the poliomyelitis virus.

The belief that sanitary methods would save the nation continued into the 1940s and 50s. Mothers were encouraged to give up breastfeeding in favor of clean controllable bottle feeding. But bottle-fed babies do not receive their mother’s immunities, making them vulnerable to pathogens like polio. Further reducing many children’s natural immunity was the common practice of performing tonsillectomy procedures on children in the post-war period. Tonsils are the first line of defense against inhaled or swallowed foreign pathogens. In the 1950s, the connection between tonsillectomy operations and polio was noted and it was recommended that the procedure not be done during the summer months when polio outbreaks were common, but it never occurred to anyone that perhaps relatively healthy tonsils should be left alone.
Even as researchers worked tirelessly to create a vaccine for the disease, polio cases increased dramatically in the post-World War II period. The peak of the epidemic was in 1952 when 58,000 cases were diagnosed in the United States.

Exeter and Rockingham County reported numerous cases of polio in the 1950s. Even though it was still statistically a small number of children who were affected, the fear of polio was profound. Parents were advised to keep children from getting exhausted or chilled. Many towns closed public swimming pools, although Exeter had none to close. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who grew up during the polio years in New York, recalled in her memoir, Maybe Next Year; “Lack of understanding about the spread of polio created a vacuum which parents and editorialists filled with a thousand admonitions: avoid crowded places where you may be sneezed or coughed upon; beware of contacts in trains, buses, or boats; keep children away from strangers; avoid swimming in cold water; don’t sit around in wet clothes; don’t play to the point of getting overtired; avoid public drinking fountains; avoid using one another’s pencils, whistles, handkerchiefs, utensils, food; burn or bury garbage not tightly covered; wash your hands before eating; call your doctor immediately if you’ve got a stiff neck, upset stomach, headache, sore throat, or unexplained fever.”

Local cases were publicized by the March of Dimes campaigns to help encourage donations. President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis helped cover the staggering costs families faced when a member needed round the clock care and rehabilitation. Mild cases were treated at Exeter Hospital; those requiring iron lung treatments were sent to the Children’s Hospital in Boston or Elliot Hospital in Manchester. Long- term rehabilitation was done at New Hampshire’s Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center, which was built in 1950. The photos and news stories did a great deal to increase donations, but they also served as a source for a steady stream of parental fear in a time when there was already plenty to fear. If the increasingly frightening Cold War and atom bomb weren’t enough, polio could strike your child during the hot summer months and leave him or her as a cripple for life. Was it any wonder, then, that when a viable vaccination was created parents were quick to sign up their children?

The first mass vaccination in Exeter occurred in May of 1955. Limited to children in the first and second grade, the clinic was a cooperative effort. The Exeter News-Letter reported, “Upon arrival at the gym, accompanied by their teachers, the children were given basic medical tests by volunteer nurses and they then stood attentively in line while the classmate ahead was given the quick but nonetheless skillful and painstaking treatment by Dr. Nolan and Dr. Tuthill. Teaming up with the two doctors were Mrs. Dean J. Thorp, Jr., R. N., and Lieutenant Commander Angelica Vetullo of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Seven naval corpsmen provided valuable assistance by measuring the serum for the individual doses.”

There were a few more years of dangerous outbreaks; Phillips Exeter Academy delayed opening in 1955 – the first year of the polio vaccine – because of the fear of outbreaks among students arriving from Massachusetts. In 1956, vaccination clinics were opened up for all children under the age of 15 as well as pregnant women. By 1957, teenagers and adults were encouraged to get vaccinated. The development and widespread use of the Sabin oral vaccine in 1962 further slashed national polio rates. In 1964, only 121 cases of polio were reported in the entire United States. Summers filled with the fear of a dread disease were a thing of the past.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Exeter Historical Society Announces Programs for '10-'11 Season

Every year, October through May, the Exeter Historical Society hosts a series of programs -- or "meetings" -- featuring presentations by local historians and authors (and occasionally meteorologists, musicians and stone masons). All of these programs are free and open to the public -- though donations are always welcome to help defray the cost. Historically, the programs have fallen on the first Tuesday of the above-mentioned months, but last year we mixed it up a bit, alternating between the first Tuesday and the first Wednesday, to appeal to those who had announced over the years that they'd love to come to our programs if they weren't always on Tuesdays. So, unless otherwise noted, all meetings are held at the Exeter Historical Society at 47 Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire, at 7:30 pm. Refreshments are served at 7:00 pm.

A quick overview of our upcoming meetings:
Tuesday, October 5, 2010: "The Great Sheep Boom & Its Enduring Legacy on the NH Landscape" by Steve Taylor**
Wednesday, November 3: "Our National Thanksgiving: With Thanks to President Lincoln and Mrs. Hale" by Steve and Sharon Wood**
Tuesday, December 7, 5:30 - 7:30pm: our annual Holiday Open House
Wednesday, January 5, 2011: "The History of the Wentworth Hotel" by J. Dennis Robinson
Tuesday, February 1: "Brewing in NH: An Informal History of Beer in the Granite State from Colonial Times to the Present" by Glenn Knoblock**
Wednesday, March 2: "Fish, Trees, Sheep and Factories: Environmental Change in NH" by Jeff Bolster
Tuesday, April 5: "Whatever Happened to Robert Todd Lincoln?" by Barbara Rimkunas (our curator & "Historically Speaking" column writer extraordinaire)
Wednesday, May 4: our Annual Meeting, "What NH Thought was Funny 200 Years Ago" by Charles E. Clark.**

We hope that you can join us for some of these presentations! If you have ideas for future programs, please email program manager Laura Martin Gowing at programs@exeterhistory.org with your suggestions.

**These programs are sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council's Humanities To Go program.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In honor of the Squamscott River Festival on Thursday, July 22, we are posting Barbara's "Historically Speaking" column on the Gundalow, which appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on July 15, 2005.

Before there were trucks and adequate highways, Exeter was a seaport by necessity. The Squamscott River provided the only reliable transportation network available – but it had some severe limitations. Originating on Great Bay, the Squamscott’s waters, like all the rivers in the Piscataqua estuary, ebb and flow with the tide. Combine this with its treacherous currents, described as “cross-grained and wily waters” by the late William Saltonstall, former principal of Phillips Exeter Academy and local historian, and one can easily imagine the difficulties involved in shipping goods up or down the river.

To tame the rivers of the Piscataqua region a new type of vessel was required. It needed to be rugged, maneuverable, and low-keeled. It had to haul heavy loads without overturning and it had to handle the shallow waters of low tide. By the colonial period, movement in the Piscataqua region was dominated by the packet – a small sturdy vessel powered by wind and tide. It was excellent for transporting people, but the keel was too deep for heavy loads and shallow water. Shipwrights began to create a flat-bottomed barge suitable for transporting large loads of lumber. By the early 1800’s, the design had been perfected to meet the needs of the region with a spoon shaped bow and elegantly rounded stern. A lateen sail was added to take advantage of wind power. This sail, on a short mast, could be lowered to pass under a bridge. A rudder and leeboard provided the maneuverability required to glide into and out of deep currents.

The gundalows were never meant to be used on the open sea, although there are a few accounts of trips made to Boston. Their job was primarily to shuttle goods between the port of Portsmouth and the inward towns of Exeter, Dover, Berwick, and Newmarket. Although similar craft were found in Maine, the triangular sail marks the Piscataqua gundalow as a vessel unique to the region. That they traveled with the tides is clear in the ledger of Joseph Fernald, an Exeter shipper who operated several gundalows from a wharf once located on the current site of Swasey Parkway. Fernald charged Exeter business men for “freighting” and noted in the ledger the goods going “down” river to Portsmouth, or “up” river to Exeter.

Captain Fernald’s busy gundalows hauled lumber, paper, furniture, and leather goods to Portsmouth on the ebb tide and returned later on the rising tide with molasses, lime, fish, candles, and rum – lots of rum. Exeter was a thirsty place before the temperance movement got going. The flat-bottomed gundalows could strand on the mud-flats and wait out the tide if necessary (not a particularly fun experience if you’re unprepared). Gundalow crews were scorned by other seamen as the lowest of their profession and schooner captain Johnson Stevens of Kennebunk was once quoted as saying, “A man that would sail a Gundilo would rob the church yard.” Perhaps all that rum was too much of a temptation when stranded on the mud flats.

Notwithstanding the good Captain’s comments, the gundalow’s crews were really able seamen considering the difficulties they encountered on their hauls. Gundalow traffic began to falter when steam powered vessels began to move barges up the rivers. By the turn of the twentieth century, gundalow traffic had all but ended on the Squamscott River.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When President Polk Came to Town

Check out Barbara's most recent column:

"Historically Speaking", by Barbara Rimkunas, Exeter News-Letter, July 9, 2010

In July of 1847, President James K. Polk decided to take a goodwill tour of the northeast. Washington, D.C. is well known for its unlivable climate in the summer, and Polk’s Attorney General, Nathan Clifford, hailed from the breezy and cool state of Maine. The President yielded to temptation and boarded a train north.

Polk dearly needed to raise some support for his programs. Most New Englanders weren’t entirely convinced, as Polk was, that the United States’ “manifest destiny” included extending the nation all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They were also highly suspicious of the on-going Mexican American War that would result in the annexation of Texas. They knew that Texas would bring with it vast tracts of slave-owning territory that would upset the careful balance of slave and free states. Still, both Maine and New Hampshire had supported Polk in the 1844 election, so it was considered friendly territory.

Whether Polk had planned to stop in Exeter is unknown. Although Rockingham County had gone for Polk in the election, Exeter had not. According to the Exeter News-Letter, “Exeter gave the largest Whig majority” in the returns of 1844.

But the election was three years gone by the time Polk planned his New England excursion and Exeter seems to have remembered its manners. Although it wasn’t quite certain whether the President’s train would actually stop, a suitable greeting was readied.

“On the arrival of the cars,” noted the News-Letter, “a national salute was fired and the bells of the several churches were rung.” This seems to have been enough to get the president’s train to stop, although the noise of the train probably drowned out the church bells. Weare Shaw, of Kensington, later remembered, “The station then was at the crossing on Front Street in a little building that spanned the track. The part on the west side of the tracks was used as a freight room.”

“The President immediately stepped from the cars to the front of the Depot,” reported the News-Letter, “where he was received on behalf of the citizens by Henry F. French, Esq. in a short and appropriate speech, and which was replied to by the President.” Judge French served in the New Hampshire Court of Common Pleas, but he has become better known as the father of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who produced Concord’s Minuteman, and the Lincoln that now gazes down from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Although French would later become an anti-slavery Republican, in 1847 he was a Democrat and therefore the most appropriate local dignitary to greet President Polk.

The Exeter News-Letter continued, “He then was introduced to many of our citizens who availed themselves to shake hands with the first President that has ever honored Exeter with his presence since the visit of Washington.” One of those citizens, recalls Shaw, was a crusty veteran of the southern Indian Wars and the War of 1812 named Waddy Cobbs. “Cobbs was an old soldier and could not walk, so was wheeled up on his chair and into the station, and when the cars stopped the President was then told of his being there. He came out of the cars and greeted Cobbs very pleasantly.”

Traveling with the President were a number of other dignitaries, including Henry Hubbard, the former Governor of New Hampshire and future President James Buchanan, who was then serving in the capacity of Secretary of State. They, along with Nathan Clifford, Attorney General, Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents and a few others, were all introduced to the crowd.

The visit to Exeter was short, lasting only a few minutes before the President’s train pulled away from the depot to continue on to Portland.

Abraham Lincoln later visited the town of Exeter in 1860, arriving at the same Front Street depot; but Lincoln hadn’t been elected President yet when he was here. There would be no other presidential visits to town until Benjamin Harrison arrived in 1889. Polk had pledged to serve only one term in office and followed through on his promise. The election of 1848 found New Hampshire men supporting another Democrat, Lewis Cass – a native of Exeter. Although the town voted heavily for its native son, the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, won the Electoral College. Perhaps if Taylor had made a visit to town before the election he might have fared better in the election returns from Exeter.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Join Water Street Bookstore
& the Exeter Historical Society
for a Book Signing by T.H. Breen
of his new book,
American Insurgents, American Patriots
Wednesday, July 7th at 7pm
at Water Street Bookstore
125 Water Street, Exeter

Challenging and displacing decades of received wisdom, T.H. Breen's strikingly original book explains how ordinary Americans -- most of them members of farm families living in small communities -- were drawn into a successful insurgency against imperial authority during the American Revolution.

T.H. Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University. An authority on the culture and politics of the early Atlantic World, he has written six major books, including Tobacco Culture and Imagining the Past.