It is hard to imagine now, in the post-vaccine era, the panic that gripped the United States as waves of polio epidemics swept through the country, peaking in 1952 with 58,000 cases. The United States was not alone. Between 1946 and 1953, polio epidemics occurred more often, more severely, and in more parts of the world than ever before, according to the Smithsonian Institution (http://americanhistory.si.edu/polio/).
Isolated cases of what was called “infantile paralysis” had occurred for centuries, even as far back as ancient Egypt although doctors did not describe its distinctive damage to the spinal cord until about 1860, or give it the scientific name “poliomyelitis” until 1874. However, polio began to emerge as an epidemic beginning in the 1880s and into the 20th century. In 1916, the northeastern region around New York City was struck with one of the worst epidemics up to that time, with about 27,000 cases resulting in 6,000 deaths.