Student View
black and white photos of children with medical equipment during the time of polio
ience Lab/Alamy Stock Photo (background); Left to right: The March of Dimes Foundation; Bettmann/Getty Images; American Photo Archive/Alamy Stock Photo; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh
From Fear to Hope

Nearly 100 years ago, a deadly virus called polio spread sickness and fear across America. My grandmother told me about this frightening time. Her stories provide lessons—and hope—for what we’re facing today.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the April 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to analyze the key ideas and details of a work of narrative nonfiction

Lexiles: 820L , 910L
Other Key Skills: text structure, author’s purpose, key ideas and details, compare and contrast, inference, interpreting text
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about the author’s purpose. What big idea does author Lauren Tarshis want to communicate to her readers?

I wish you had known my grandmother, Jennie Ross. She was warm and funny, and I know you would have loved her. (She definitely would have loved you.) Born in 1920, she lived a long life; it was mostly happy, though sometimes extremely difficult.

I wish you had known my grandmother, Jennie Ross. She was warm and funny, and I know you would have loved her. (She definitely would have loved you.) Born in 1920, she lived a long life. It was mostly happy, but sometimes very difficult.

Courtesy of Lauren Tarshis

Often my grandmother would tell me stories of her childhood as we paged through her photo albums. I especially loved her wedding album, filled with glossy photographs from 1938, my grandmother beautiful in her pearl-white dress. I was particularly fascinated by the flower girl, my grandmother’s 10-year-old cousin, Dolly Yasnitz. She reminded me of Judy Garland, the star of the movie The Wizard of Oz.

But as my grandmother told me one day, there was something striking about Dolly beyond her adorable smile. Under her blue dress, Dolly’s little legs were encased in metal braces. The braces, bound tightly to her legs with leather straps, kept her stable so she could stand. At my grandmother’s wedding, Dolly used two wooden crutches to make her way down the aisle with slow, halting steps.

Dolly’s legs had been damaged by a disease called polio. Until the 1950s, polio was one of the most dreaded diseases in the world. It killed thousands. Many of those who survived, like Dolly, were left with lifelong damage to their limbs.

Often my grandmother would tell me stories of her childhood as we paged through her photo albums. I especially loved her wedding album, filled with glossy photographs from 1938. My grandmother was beautiful in her pearl-white dress. I was particularly fascinated by the flower girl, my grandmother’s 10-year-old cousin, Dolly Yasnitz. She reminded me of the star of the movie The Wizard of Oz.

But as my grandmother told me one day, there was something striking about Dolly beyond her adorable smile. Under her blue dress, Dolly’s little legs were encased in metal braces. The braces were bound tightly to her legs with leather straps. They kept her stable so she could stand. At my grandmother’s wedding, Dolly used two wooden crutches to make her way down the aisle with slow, halting steps.

Dolly’s legs had been damaged by a disease called polio. Until the 1950s, polio was one of the most dreaded diseases in the world. It killed thousands. Many of those who survived, like Dolly, were left with lifelong damage to their limbs.

A Looming Threat

Dolly and my grandmother grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. Their parents and their parents’ siblings had all escaped from Russia, where, as Jewish people, they had faced hateful prejudice. The family came to the U.S. in the early 1900s and settled in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Life wasn’t easy. They worked physically demanding jobs in factories and shipyards and struggled to learn English. But over time, the family made strides. My grandmother’s father, Ben—my great-grandfather—became the first Jewish police captain in Chester, a source of enormous pride for the family. My grandmother’s cousin Isador, a gifted piano player who went on to become a famous composer for movies, gave lessons to Dolly and other family members.

But over the happy times loomed the ever-present threat of illness. My grandmother and Dolly grew up before the existence of many modern vaccines and other medicines. In 1918, two years before my grandmother was born, a pandemic of influenza killed more than 50 million people around the world. Outbreaks of measles and mumps were common. And, in this time before antibiotics, a simple ear infection or a minor cut could turn deadly.

Dolly and my grandmother grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. Their parents and their parents’ siblings had all escaped from Russia. There, as Jewish people, they had faced hateful prejudice. The family came to the U.S. in the early 1900s and settled in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Life wasn’t easy. They worked hard jobs in factories and shipyards. They struggled to learn English. But over time, the family made strides. My grandmother’s father, Ben—my great-grandfather—became the first Jewish police captain in Chester. This was a source of great pride for the family. My grandmother’s cousin Isador was a gifted piano player. She gave lessons to the family, including Dolly. Isador grew up to become a famous composer for movies.

But over the happy times loomed the ever-present threat of illness. My grandmother and Dolly grew up before many modern vaccines and other medicines. In 1918, two years before my grandmother was born, a pandemic of influenza killed more than 50 million people around the world. Outbreaks of measles and mumps were common. And, in this time before antibiotics, an ear infection or a minor cut could turn deadly.

American Photo Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Children wearing masks during the flu pandemic of 1918, during which there was also a polio outbreak in the U.S.

Polio Mysteries

Of the myriad diseases that plagued the world in the early 20th century, polio was among the most feared. Starting in the late 1800s, outbreaks occurred in the U.S. every few years, seeming to explode out of nowhere like monsters in movies.

My grandmother had vivid memories of when polio struck Chester. Her school would shut down for weeks or longer. Stores and movie theaters and libraries would close. When someone fell ill, the entire family was forced to quarantine. In some nearby towns, armed guards patrolled train stations to prevent outsiders from spreading the illness. Hospitals became overwhelmed.

Nobody knew what caused polio or how it spread—and there was no cure. Fortunately, most people suffered only mild symptoms: a fever, a sore throat, body aches. But in severe cases, polio attacked the nerves that control muscles and left people paralyzed, unable to use their legs or arms. If polio attacked the muscles needed for breathing, the disease could be fatal. 

Anyone could catch polio. But the disease most often afflicted children.

Many diseases plagued the world in the early 1900s. But polio was among the most feared. Starting in the late 1800s, outbreaks occurred in the U.S. every few years. These outbreaks seemed to explode out of nowhere like monsters in movies.

My grandmother had vivid memories of when polio struck Chester. Her school would shut down for weeks or longer. Stores and movie theaters and libraries would close. When someone fell ill, the entire family was forced to quarantine. In some nearby towns, armed guards were placed at train stations to prevent outsiders from spreading the illness. Hospitals became overwhelmed.

Nobody knew what caused polio or how it spread. And there was no cure. Fortunately, most people suffered only mild symptoms: a fever, a sore throat, body aches. But in severe cases, polio attacked the nerves that control muscles and left people unable to use their legs or arms. If polio attacked the muscles needed for breathing, the disease could be fatal.

Anyone could catch polio. But the disease most often afflicted children.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Fearing the Worst

As my grandmother remembered it, Dolly was 6 years old when she got sick. The family rushed her to the hospital, fearing the worst. Many children hospitalized with polio died of it. Others spent months in the polio ward, with few medicines to ease their pain and no shows to stream or video games to play to help pass the time.

Dolly did have a severe case, but after a few weeks, she was able to return home. My grandmother and Dolly’s other cousins took turns visiting—singing to her, performing puppet shows, and reading aloud her favorite nursery rhymes.

Over the next year, Dolly learned to walk using crutches and the braces that locked her legs in place. She was able to return to school and continue learning piano. She was thrilled when my grandmother asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding.

As my grandmother remembered it, Dolly was 6 years old when she got sick. The family rushed her to the hospital, fearing the worst. Many children hospitalized with polio died of it. Others spent months in the hospital. There were few medicines to ease their pain. There were no shows to stream or video games to play to help pass the time.

Dolly did have a severe case. But after a few weeks, she was able to return home. My grandmother and Dolly’s other cousins took turns visiting. They sang to her, performed puppet shows, and read aloud her favorite nursery rhymes.

Over the next year, Dolly learned to walk using crutches and the braces that locked her legs in place. She was able to return to school and continue learning piano. She was thrilled when my grandmother asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding.

The March of Dimes Foundation

Children recovering from polio at Municipal Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA, 1953

Polio Pioneers

By the time of that wedding, scientists had begun to untangle some of the mysteries of polio. They would soon learn that it spread through feces (poop). If a person who was infected failed to wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, they could leave microscopic traces of the virus behind on surfaces for another person to touch. The virus could then enter that second person’s body through the mouth when they touched their face or while eating.

During the 1940s and early ’50s, Americans mobilized an all-out crusade against polio. People across the country volunteered to help raise money for research. Children sold lemonade. Disney characters like Mickey Mouse paraded across movie screens, urging audience members to contribute. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” they sang. “We will cure polio!”

Millions of dollars poured into laboratories where researchers raced to develop a vaccine. And in 1953, there was widespread jubilation when a 38-year-oldscientist named Jonas Salk announced that he had done so.

The following year, 1.8 million children, known as “polio pioneers,” lined up in their schools to receive the vaccine. Within a few years, polio cases in America had plummeted. By the time I was born, in the 1960s, polio was almost unheard of in the United States.

By the time of that wedding, scientists had begun to solve some of the mysteries of polio. They would soon learn that it spread through feces (poop). If a person who was infected didn’t wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, they could leave microscopic bits of the virus behind on surfaces for another person to touch. The virus could then enter that second person’s body through the mouth.

During the 1940s and early ’50s, Americans organized an all-out crusade against polio. People across the country volunteered to help raise money for research. Children sold lemonade. Disney characters like Mickey Mouse paraded across movie screens, urging audience members to contribute. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” they sang. “We will cure polio!”

Millions of dollars poured into laboratories where researchers raced to develop a vaccine. And in 1953, there was widespread jubilation when a 38-year-old scientist named Jonas Salk announced that he had done so.

The following year, nearly 2 million children, known as “polio pioneers,” lined up in their schools to receive the vaccine. Within a few years, polio cases in America had plummeted. By the time I was born, in the 1960s, polio was almost unheard of in the United States.

How Does the Polio Vaccine Work?

A vaccine is a substance that trains your body to fight a particular disease. The polio vaccine is made from a small amount of polio virus that has been treated with a chemical so it can’t make you sick. The vaccine does, however, trigger a response from your immune system.

Here’s how it works: Your immune system mistakes the harmless vaccine for the real virus and creates what are called antibodies to fight the virus off. These antibodies remain in your body. If you ever come into contact with the polio virus, they spring into action and destroy the virus. This is how vaccines make you immune.

How Does the Polio Vaccine Work?

A vaccine is a substance that trains your body to fight a particular disease. The polio vaccine is made from a small amount of polio virus that has been treated with a chemical so it can’t make you sick. The vaccine does, however, trigger a response from your immune system.

Here’s how it works: Your immune system mistakes the harmless vaccine for the real virus and creates what are called antibodies to fight the virus off. These antibodies remain in your body. If you ever come into contact with the polio virus, they spring into action and destroy the virus. This is how vaccines make you immune.

Lessons of Hope

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh

 

Sadly, the vaccine couldn’t help people like Dolly; her bout with polio left her with lifelong complications. Like my grandmother, she married and started a family—but as she got older, the pain in her legs worsened. It became hard for her to work, to travel, to walk. She died at the age of 71, in 1999.

My grandmother lived much longer. She died just nine years ago, at the age of 92. I miss her deeply—and think of her constantly. And the polio stories she shared are echoing loudly through my mind these days, as we all cope with a different disease: Covid-19.

There are so many similarities. Like polio, Covid-19 was a mystery to scientists when it first appeared, in December 2019. Outbreaks have shut down our schools, closed our restaurants and libraries, and canceled our vacations and sports seasons. And, like polio, Covid-19 has been a source of tremendous fear and uncertainty.

But my grandmother’s stories give me hope. We conquered polio. This gives me confidence that we will conquer Covid-19. Indeed, while I was working on this story, the first vaccines against Covid-19 were being approved.

I will always have memories of this remarkable time we are living through. And of course, so will you. Perhaps one day, you will pass your stories on to your grandchildren, with lessons that will fill their hearts with hope.

Sadly, the vaccine couldn’t help people like Dolly; her bout with polio left her with complications for the rest of her life. Like my grandmother, she married and started a family—but as she got older, the pain in her legs worsened. It became hard for her to work, to travel, to walk. She died at the age of 71, in 1999.

My grandmother lived much longer. She died just nine years ago, at the age of 92. I miss her deeply—and think of her constantly. And the polio stories she shared are echoing loudly through my mind these days, as we all cope with a different disease: Covid-19.

There are so many similarities. Like polio, Covid-19 was a mystery to scientists when it first appeared, in December 2019. Outbreaks have shut down our schools, closed our restaurants and libraries, and canceled our vacations and sports seasons. And, like polio, Covid-19 has been a source of fear and uncertainty.

But my grandmother’s stories give me hope. We conquered polio. This gives me confidence that we will conquer Covid-19. Indeed, while I was working on this story, the first vaccines against Covid-19 were being approved.

I will always have memories of this remarkable time we are living through. And of course, so will you. Perhaps one day, you will pass your stories on to your grandchildren, with lessons that will fill their hearts with hope.

Writing Prompt

The last section of the article is called “Lessons of Hope.” What lessons of hope does the story of polio contain? Use details from the article to support your ideas. 

Writing Prompt

The last section of the article is called “Lessons of Hope.” What lessons of hope does the story of polio contain? Use details from the article to support your ideas. 

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

video (1)
Audio ()
Activities (15)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
video (1)
Audio ()
Activities (15)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

Essential questions: Why are vaccines important? How can events of the past give us perspective on the present? How do we cope in times of crisis?


1. PREPARING TO READ (20 MINUTES)

Watch the Video (12 minutes)

  • Watch the Behind the Scenes video, which introduces the topic and events described in the article. Then have students respond to the Video Discussion Questions (available in your Resources tab) in small groups or independently.


Preview Vocabulary (8 minutes)

  • Project the Vocabulary: Definitions and Practice on your whiteboard, or if you’re remote, share it on your screen. Review the definitions as a class. (Optionally, have students complete the practice activity for homework.) Highlighted words: afflicted, bout, crusade, encased, jubilation, loomed, plagued, strides

Watch the Video (12 minutes)

  • Watch the Behind the Scenes video, which introduces the topic and events described in the article. Then have students respond to the Video Discussion Questions (available in your Resources tab) in small groups or independently.


Preview Vocabulary (8 minutes)

  • Project the Vocabulary: Definitions and Practice on your whiteboard, or if you’re remote, share it on your screen. Review the definitions as a class. (Optionally, have students complete the practice activity for homework.) Highlighted words: afflicted, bout, crusade, encased, jubilation, loomed, plagued, strides

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

  • Have a volunteer read the As You Read box on page 6 of the magazine or at the top of the digital story page. 
  • Read the story once through as a class. (Differentiation: Share the lower-Lexile version of the article with students who may need it.) Optionally, have students listen to author Lauren Tarshis read the story while they follow along. The audio read-aloud is located in the Resources tab in Teacher View and at the top of the story page in Student View. 
  • Divide students into groups to read the story again and respond to the following close-reading questions. Tip: If you’re remote, you can have each group respond in a shared doc or discuss the questions in their own chat room; you can also use the questions as an asynchronous assignment.


Close-Reading Questions (10 minutes)

  1. What do you learn about Dolly in the introduction? Why might author Lauren Tarshis have chosen to describe Dolly at Tarshis’s grandmother’s wedding? (text structure, author’s purpose) In the introduction, Tarshis explains that Dolly was the younger cousin of Tarshis’s grandmother. You learn that Dolly had been sick with polio, a disease that affected her legs and required her to wear leg braces to stand. Tarshis’s description of Dolly at the wedding, walking down the aisle with “slow, halting steps” and using crutches, creates a vivid image that engages readers and also helps readers understand how polio affected people. 
  2. In the section “Polio Mysteries,” Tarshis writes that polio was “among the most feared” diseases of the early 20th century. What details in the article help explain why people were so afraid of polio? (key ideas and details) Details may include that polio could leave people paralyzed or could make walking without the aid of supports like braces and crutches difficult (6, 8). In the worst cases, when polio attacked the muscles needed for breathing, the disease could be fatal (8). Other details that show why people may have feared polio more than other diseases include that scientists in the early 1900s did not know what caused polio, how it spread, or how to cure it, and that the disease most often afflicted children (8). 
  3. In the section “Polio Mysteries,” which details of the polio outbreaks of the past are similar to details of the Covid-19 pandemic we are facing today? (compare and contrast, key ideas and details) Students may say that the closing of schools, stores, movie theaters, and libraries, families being forced to quarantine, and hospitals becoming overwhelmed with patients are all similar to what we are facing today with Covid-19. 
  4. Based on information in the section “Fearing the Worst,” what can you infer about Dolly’s family? (inference) You can infer that Dolly’s family cared about her very much. They did what they could to comfort and entertain her when she came home from the hospital. Tarshis’s grandmother also asked Dolly to be the flower girl in her wedding, which shows their close relationship. 
  5. In the section “Polio Pioneers,” Tarshis writes that by the time of her grandmother’s wedding, “scientists had begun to untangle some of the mysteries of polio.” What does Tarshis mean? (interpreting text) Tarshis means that scientists had begun to better understand the disease; they had found answers to some of the questions that had previously stumped them. 


Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  1. Why do you think Tarshis decided to tell a personal family story instead of writing a purely informational article about polio? Answers will vary. Students may say that by choosing to write a story about her own family, Tarshis was able to create a more personal and relatable picture of how polio affected people. She was able to draw on her family’s experiences to better understand—and then convey to her readers—the fear, uncertainty, and heartbreak that people lived with during the polio epidemic. Additionally, because the story is so personal, we feel as if we know Dolly, Tarshis’s grandmother, and other members of Tarshis’s family, which makes us care about them.
  2. Look at the photos and read the captions in the sidebar “How were polio outbreaks of the past like Covid-19 outbreaks today?” How does this text feature give us hope for what we are facing today? Answers will vary. Students may say that the photos and captions show situations that are very similar to what we are facing today with Covid-19: people quarantining, kids learning remotely, and a vaccine being developed. Seeing that people in the past lived through—and conquered—a health crisis much like the one we are experiencing now can be comforting and make the present seem less frightening. 
  • Have a volunteer read the As You Read box on page 6 of the magazine or at the top of the digital story page. 
  • Read the story once through as a class. (Differentiation: Share the lower-Lexile version of the article with students who may need it.) Optionally, have students listen to author Lauren Tarshis read the story while they follow along. The audio read-aloud is located in the Resources tab in Teacher View and at the top of the story page in Student View. 
  • Divide students into groups to read the story again and respond to the following close-reading questions. Tip: If you’re remote, you can have each group respond in a shared doc or discuss the questions in their own chat room; you can also use the questions as an asynchronous assignment.


Close-Reading Questions (10 minutes)

  1. What do you learn about Dolly in the introduction? Why might author Lauren Tarshis have chosen to describe Dolly at Tarshis’s grandmother’s wedding? (text structure, author’s purpose) In the introduction, Tarshis explains that Dolly was the younger cousin of Tarshis’s grandmother. You learn that Dolly had been sick with polio, a disease that affected her legs and required her to wear leg braces to stand. Tarshis’s description of Dolly at the wedding, walking down the aisle with “slow, halting steps” and using crutches, creates a vivid image that engages readers and also helps readers understand how polio affected people. 
  2. In the section “Polio Mysteries,” Tarshis writes that polio was “among the most feared” diseases of the early 20th century. What details in the article help explain why people were so afraid of polio? (key ideas and details) Details may include that polio could leave people paralyzed or could make walking without the aid of supports like braces and crutches difficult (6, 8). In the worst cases, when polio attacked the muscles needed for breathing, the disease could be fatal (8). Other details that show why people may have feared polio more than other diseases include that scientists in the early 1900s did not know what caused polio, how it spread, or how to cure it, and that the disease most often afflicted children (8). 
  3. In the section “Polio Mysteries,” which details of the polio outbreaks of the past are similar to details of the Covid-19 pandemic we are facing today? (compare and contrast, key ideas and details) Students may say that the closing of schools, stores, movie theaters, and libraries, families being forced to quarantine, and hospitals becoming overwhelmed with patients are all similar to what we are facing today with Covid-19. 
  4. Based on information in the section “Fearing the Worst,” what can you infer about Dolly’s family? (inference) You can infer that Dolly’s family cared about her very much. They did what they could to comfort and entertain her when she came home from the hospital. Tarshis’s grandmother also asked Dolly to be the flower girl in her wedding, which shows their close relationship. 
  5. In the section “Polio Pioneers,” Tarshis writes that by the time of her grandmother’s wedding, “scientists had begun to untangle some of the mysteries of polio.” What does Tarshis mean? (interpreting text) Tarshis means that scientists had begun to better understand the disease; they had found answers to some of the questions that had previously stumped them. 


Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  1. Why do you think Tarshis decided to tell a personal family story instead of writing a purely informational article about polio? Answers will vary. Students may say that by choosing to write a story about her own family, Tarshis was able to create a more personal and relatable picture of how polio affected people. She was able to draw on her family’s experiences to better understand—and then convey to her readers—the fear, uncertainty, and heartbreak that people lived with during the polio epidemic. Additionally, because the story is so personal, we feel as if we know Dolly, Tarshis’s grandmother, and other members of Tarshis’s family, which makes us care about them.
  2. Look at the photos and read the captions in the sidebar “How were polio outbreaks of the past like Covid-19 outbreaks today?” How does this text feature give us hope for what we are facing today? Answers will vary. Students may say that the photos and captions show situations that are very similar to what we are facing today with Covid-19: people quarantining, kids learning remotely, and a vaccine being developed. Seeing that people in the past lived through—and conquered—a health crisis much like the one we are experiencing now can be comforting and make the present seem less frightening. 

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)

  • Have students complete Preparing to Write: Lessons of Hope (available in your Resources tab). This activity will help them organize their ideas in preparation for the writing prompt on page 9 in the printed magazine and at the bottom of the digital story page. 
  • Alternatively, have students choose a culminating task from the Choice Board, a menu of differentiated activities.
  • Have students complete Preparing to Write: Lessons of Hope (available in your Resources tab). This activity will help them organize their ideas in preparation for the writing prompt on page 9 in the printed magazine and at the bottom of the digital story page. 
  • Alternatively, have students choose a culminating task from the Choice Board, a menu of differentiated activities.