Polio in Glasgow: social distancing in 1947

In 1947 the UK was in the grip of an epidemic of poliomyelitis. Polio is an acute and sometimes fatal viral disease. While many other diseases were reducing in occurrence due to improvements in hygiene and medicine since the beginning of the 20th century, every few years polio would reappear.

It was also called  infantile paralysis, because children were particularly vulnerable to it.

Humans are the only natural host for poliovirus. The virus enters the mouth and multiplies in lymphoid tissues in the pharynx and intestine. Small numbers of virus enter the blood and go to other sites where the virus multiplies more extensively. Virus in the bloodstream then enters the central nervous system including the spinal cord and brain causing inflammation.

In many people the disease can have minor effects with flu-like symptoms which they quickly overcome. However those who have a more serious infection may have muscle weakness and even paralysis, and it can take many months to recover. Sometimes patients need to be artificially ventilated; the ‘iron lung’ machine had been developed in 1928 to help them breathe.

At this point in time there was no vaccine for the disease.

During the 1947 outbreak there were 8,000 cases of polio in the UK, more than ten times the previous yearly average. Given its potentially life-changing effects,  polio was alarming for many parents and some schools, cinemas and social events were closed down.

The Baths was not immune.

Handwritten minutes with the text 'Owing to the Infantile Paralysis scare there was great doubt that the forthcoming Galas would be held'. Signed 'Ella Thomson (Hon Sec)'
Ladies Committee minutes 5 October 1947 (Glasgow City Archive TD 965/9)

As the Baths tried to get back to normal after World War Two, the Ladies Committee notes in October 1947 that the annual gala may be in doubt. By the next meeting on 6 November the decision is made to call off one of the highlights of the Bath’s year.

Handwritten minute stating, 'A letter was read from the Hon Sec of the Polo Club intimating that , owing to the non-attendance at the Baths, it had been decided to postpone both the Ladies and the Gents Galas meantime'.
Ladies Committee Minutes 6 November 1947(Glasgow City Archive TD 965/9)

The minutes refer to a letter received from the Arlington Polo Club which says “that owing to  the low attendance at the Baths it has been decided to postpone both the Ladies and Gents Galas meantime”. Attendance at the Baths was down due to members displaying responsible ‘social distancing’ to reduce transmission and possible infection.

The galas were one of the key social events of the Baths’ year with the Gentlemen and Ladies Galas on consecutive evenings in November. As well as competition within the Baths some races were open to entrants from the Dennistoun and Western Baths Clubs. In May each year, Arlington members would participate in the Western Baths Gala.

By January 1948, the committee are investigating having the postponed gala with a possible date in May.

Handwritten minute stating, "It was suggested that the Ladies should hold a Gala of their own, perhaps in May, now that the Inf. Paralysis scare has died down. Discussion to take place at the next Committee meeting'.
Ladies Committee Minutes 8 January 1948 (Glasgow City Archive TD 965/9)

Finally, the delayed gala was held on 20 May 1948 and recorded as a great success in the committee minutes of 3 June 1948.

Handwritten minutes stating, "The gala was voyted a great success and in particular the prizes seemed very popular. It was decided to show our appreacition to Mrs Elma Thomson for her 25 years service as Hon Sec by a presentation."
Ladies Committee Minutes  3 June 1948 (Glasgow City Archive TD 965/9)

The Ladies Committee then organised a second gala in November 1948; sadly there are no programmes in the archive.

A polio vaccine was created by Dr Jonas Salk in the early 1950s and was developed later by Albert Sabin but outbreaks still occurred, including in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s.

Thanks to a worldwide vaccination programme, today the disease is almost eradicated.

Researcher: Will Jess


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