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Polio in Ann Arbor


Friday March 18, 2022: 12:00pm to Wednesday June 15, 2022: 8:00pm


Downtown Library: 2nd Floor Exhibit


Polio, also known as poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis, was once a scourge in the United States and in the world. Outbreaks became common in the US and Europe in the late 19th-century, with numbers of cases fluctuating but trending upward. 1952 was the worst year in the US for polio: nearly 58,000 cases were reported; 21,000 people were paralyzed, either temporarily or permanently; and over 3,000 people died as a result. Perhaps the most terrifying truth about polio was that it mostly affected children under the age of 5.

Polio occupies a particular place within American culture, a place that depends entirely on when you were born. It is something that many people still remember, vividly, from their childhoods: terrified parents, closures of churches and movie theaters and public pools, and newspaper photos of children in leg braces or iron lungs. But many others today have no experience with it, either in the fear of the disease or its effects.

Ann Arbor was home to the same scenes that occurred in every American city and town in the mid-twentieth century. Ann Arborites feared polio, saw polio disable or kill people they knew, and raised money to support treatments and the search for a cure. But Ann Arbor was home to more of that history than the average community. University Hospital had a renowned polio wing, where patients young and old received treatment for the effects of the disease from experts using state of the art equipment. And when the vaccine came, the study of its safety and efficacy was administered here in Ann Arbor, and the announcement of its success took place in Rackham Auditorium, just blocks from this spot.

This collection of photographs from the Ann Arbor News looks back at the story of one city’s experience with polio and the polio vaccine: a story of illness, of science, and of community.

To learn more about polio in Ann Arbor, visit