Jackson County had been lucky in 1916. While the nation reported over 25,000 cases and 6,000 deaths from infantile paralysis (polio), most of the county and Oregon were spared from the first widespread epidemic of the disease in the United States.
There were always sporadic outbreaks over the years, yet rarely did the Rogue Valley see many cases or deaths. Until the late summer of 1927 there was little for residents to worry about.
When in late August, a second section, page 4 social column in the newspaper noted that a young Klamath Falls girl was “very ill and low with infantile paralysis,” few even noticed and certainly no one began to panic.
Within a week, polio was page-one news. The Klamath County health officer said there had been 27 polio cases and seven deaths over the previous three weeks. Officials there considered and then vetoed a proposal to cancel the upcoming county fair and Labor Day celebrations.
By mid September, many Klamath Falls parents were bringing their children to Jackson County to stay with relatives, all the while saying that the epidemic on the other side of the Cascades was almost over.
When several Klamath Falls families began trying to enroll their children in county schools, Medford City Health Officer Dr. Elijah Pickel issued an order banning all children from the Klamath Falls area from entering a local school and required a 21-day quarantine period and a doctor’s examination to prevent spread of the disease.
Although Pickel was attempting to protect the local school children, his warning came too late. Within two days, the Jackson County health officer announced Rogue River school was closed because of polio. An 11-year-old Rogue River girl had died of the disease. He reported an additional case of a 35-year-old man in Central Point whose arms and legs were paralyzed.
The county school superintendent noted that classroom attendance was dramatically dropping because fearful parents were keeping their children home.
By the end of September, at least 29 cases were confirmed in the county. Medford had two of the youngest patients, a 4-month-old and a 3-year-old.
Medford City Council ordered a complete quarantine of all children 16 and younger. Those children had to remain in their homes or their backyards. The ordinance, for an indefinite period, closed all “schools, theaters, places of amusement and public thoroughfares” to these children.
“While there is no cause for alarm,” Dr. Pickel said, “we hope to have the assistance of all in the execution of this order.”
In response, Prink Callison, coach of the Black Tornado, canceled the upcoming football game with Marshfield.
For nearly a week, no new cases appeared and officials optimistically predicted the quarantine would be lifted in just two more weeks. Then, it began again.
Eleven-year-old Lucille Reed died three days after her first symptoms. The 3-year-old daughter of Medford City Treasurer Herbert Berrian was infected, as was Mary Holloway, 5, granddaughter of Charles Whillock, owner of the Golden Rule grocery stores. Francis Buckley, 21, was only sick three days before dying.
While admitting that the number of cases in the county was just an estimate, the county medical officer believed there were at least 26 active cases in the area. “Infantile paralysis keeps on spreading,” said a Mail Tribune headline.
Still without an accurate count by January 1928, the quarantine was long gone and the epidemic fading away. It was one of the worst polio epidemics in Southern Oregon, but it wasn’t the last.
Throughout the year, a doctor with the Harvard infantile paralysis commission announced that the polio “germ” had been isolated and a vaccine would soon be ready for testing.
It was hopeful news, however “soon” is a relative term. The wait for the doctor’s polio vaccine would last for another quarter of a century.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Email him at email@example.com.