Water to Cripple and Heal

Our grandparents, Luther and Clara Weigle, in the mid-1920s built a summer house on the wooded shoreline of Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. The beautiful lake sits near the western boundary of the state, about halfway between Massachusetts and Maine. It stretches over ten miles mostly north-south, just over one mile wide in the middle part, with a prominent turn at the Tilson house at the north end. Sunapee swells with seasonal residents in summer and contracts in winter. Our mother’s family were among the part-timers, coming up from New Haven, Connecticut, every June.

They called the summer house their cottage, though it had 4 small bedrooms as well as an attic where I remember sleeping as a visiting grandchild. Our grandfather’s study was a separate structure with screen windows where he would smoke cigars and work on divinity school projects through delightful summer days. A garage up the hill held two automobiles – antiques by the time I saw them, fortunately adjoined by parking space for usable modern vehicles.

There were two sheds for firewood, a small garden cleared from the woods and surrounded by steel wire fencing to deter the deer and rabbits with scant success, and a picnic table 12 feet out from the kitchen door where we ate lunch or supper whenever possible. I remember in the early years of vacations an icebox, kept cold by the delivery every few days of an enormous cube of ice. The stove burned wood, and a stone fireplace similarly gave “central heating” when needed. The house had electricity and indoor plumbing by the time that I and my siblings knew it.

Polio Weigle summer house 4
Weigle summer house in 1932. In the foreground a rowboat in the water and a canoe on the dock.

On the lakefront our grandparents had built a large, L-shaped dock and a small square one inside the L for little children. From the big dock you could look 8 feet down through the clear water to see the fish swimming and, in places, the sandy spots where they guarded their eggs. We heard about a fisherman at Lake Sunapee who had reeled in the largest rainbow trout on record. Next to the docks a boathouse held a canoe; a rowboat spent the winter there also, while in summer it was tied between the docks.

Polio Twin Islands 2

In June we found it difficult to swim very long in the cold water. By July and August we could swim until we got tired, even 120 yards over to Twin Islands (shown above). Mama told us that in the early years, when the lake was sparsely populated, the Weigle family true to their North European heritage didn’t bother to put on bathing suits.

Halfway down the hill from the house, you could hear the chug-chugging of the water pump. It drew water from the lake through a pipe that extended some 40 feet out and to a depth of 10 or 12 feet. This water served for washing, toilets, and drinking.

This was the place to which my mother and oldest brother David, a toddler then, came in the summer months of 1946 to live with her parents, while Arthur Guyton resumed his surgery residency at Mass General Hospital in Boston. She was pregnant. Arthur could usually get away every other weekend to join the family at their summer retreat.

Arthur was concerned about the drinking water. Who knew what kind of hygiene their few neighbors kept, or even the people across the lake? There had been cases of polio around the lake that summer. His mother-in-law Clara Weigle considered it unnecessary to sterilize the water by boiling. He mentioned Ruth’s pregnancy and urged her to boil the water, but she replied that the sparkling-clear lake water had served her family well for thirty years without incident and there was no need to change her practice.

In fact they remained quite healthy at Sunapee. When the summer ended, Arthur and Ruth moved into their new house in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In the basement he built a shop complete with a metal-working lathe that he planned to use to construct medical and research analytical devices in the evening hours at home.

Less than a month after Arthur and Ruth moved to Wellesley, he developed fatigue, backache, and fever. In his words,

I got it at the end of October, and at first I just felt rather weak, still seeing patients. But there was such a heavy work schedule for the residents that you just didn’t turn in sick; as long as you could move around, you kept on. If I had turned myself in when I first became ill, I probably would not have gotten as severe a case . . . .  I was working sixteen hours a day, and, after doing that day after day, seeing all the patients, busy all the time, feverish with a temperature of about 101, suddenly I was just too weak to walk anymore. I turned myself into the emergency ward, got a little sleep, and the next morning when I woke up and tried to reach my arm over my body, I couldn’t do it.

The cause of his problem was not immediately clear –

When I got ill, it was not the usual time of year for a polio epidemic, so they thought at first that it was something other than polio. I had just come off neurosurgery ten or twelve weeks before, and had treated a few patients with tuberculosis meningitis and others with tuberculosis of the spinal cord, so that these were possibilities. . . .  I was convinced, however, right from the beginning that I had contracted polio, although, at first, no one would believe me. But I made the diagnosis on myself as it turned out.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, a viral infection that destroys the large motor neurons in the spinal cord, was the more common diagnosis. Several cases had indeed occurred around Lake Sunapee over the summer. However, it was late in the year for usual contagious spread of polio. And he had been away from Sunapee for a period longer than the usual incubation period for the virus. More likely he had contracted the disease in the usual manner from fecal soiling and a slip on hand washing.

As strange as it sounds, polio was the more favorable diagnosis. There were no antimicrobials then with the power to treat tuberculosis in the brain or spinal cord – tuberculosis would have been a death sentence. Arthur knew that about two-thirds of people stricken by the polio virus would recover from most of the paralytic effects, and for a while he remained optimistic. Here is how the illness evolved:

It turned out that I was one of the first new cases of a new polio epidemic in Boston, which became apparent a few weeks later. . . .  For a time, I was virtually totally paralyzed in all the muscles of my body; about the only thing left was the ability to breathe.

He was very familiar with the iron lung. Today’s breathing machines push air into the lungs through an endotracheal tube, the tip of which is encircled by a small balloon that seals the connection with the trachea (windpipe) and allows the development of positive air pressure to expand the lungs. In the 1940s, however, the balloon fitting had not yet been contrived. Breathing could be assisted only by putting the patient’s body into a large steel cylinder with head extending from one end and an elastic collar fitting tightly around the neck. The huge iron lung worked by removing air from around the body, expanding the lungs by negative pressure from the outside.

Arthur never required the iron lung, but his medical team for a time kept one available for immediate use if needed. His description of those days continues–

I couldn’t turn over; I couldn’t roll; I couldn’t do anything. Then, about three weeks later . . , I raised my left foot a little bit. The nurse came running, and I began to move the left foot to demonstrate. During the next few days, the muscles gradually got better in the left leg. I got a little more movement back in my left thigh, my right arm, and the trunk, but both shoulders were badly affected – the left shoulder is still totally paralyzed and the right severely limited so that I cannot raise either arm at the shoulder. I can flex the right arm at the elbow and can squeeze some with my right hand. Nothing is left in my left arm or forearm and nothing in the right leg from the hip down, and weakness is everywhere else. It was 5 or 6 months before I could barely push myself to the upright position, using my right arm and left leg.

Arthur’s father flew up from Mississippi to do what he could to help; his mother Kate was ill and couldn’t make the trip. According to Brinson’s biography, “As a doctor, Billy Guyton had earned a reputation for never being pessimistic about his own patients. Despite the seriousness of the situation, his quiet optimism did much to lift the spirits of Arthur and Ruth. Billy slept in a room in the hospital and after a visit of about a week he returned to Oxford.” Arthur later recalled discussions of how his family might be supported –

You say to yourself, “How am I going to make a living? What’s going to happen to them?” My father being a doctor felt the same way, and he was trying to make all sorts of arrangements for me right from the beginning. He even changed his will to set up a trust fund, mainly for my son and another child who was on the way.

The second child was another boy, Robert, born in late November. Ruth faced a dilemma. She wanted to see Arthur as much as possible, but her neighbors feared catching polio, and no one was willing to stay with the children. Finally one woman came forward to babysit repeatedly. Her name I can’t remember, but my mother considered her a hero of the first rank and kept in touch with her for the rest of her life.

After 3 months in the hospital, Arthur recovered sufficiently to think about physical rehabilitation. The best place for rehab was Warm Springs, Georgia, about 60 miles south of Atlanta, where the swimming pools from natural thermal springs lightened the force of gravity and provided warmth for prolonged exercise of weakened muscles. They put Arthur on a train in Boston. His brother Bill, living then in Washington, DC, came to the station to speak to him during the brief stop there. Arthur recalled his arrival in Warm Springs –

Just as soon as we arrived, I expected to be lifted out of the windows on a stretcher as had been the way that I had been handled in Boston and in transferring in New York. However, on arriving in Warm Springs, two Warm Springs attendants walked into the train and picked me up right out of the bed I was lying in and simply walked out with me, carrying me down the steps. Obviously, these people knew how to handle patients with polio, and they did so with the smallest amount of fanfare.[1]

How did Ruth respond to the new reality? In Arthur’s words,

She came to Warm Springs and lived in less than ideal conditions with our two young sons while I was recuperating at Warm Springs. This way, we were able to be together every day. In addition, she began to take on very strenuous duties. Fortunately, she is a strong person, and she even got to the point that she could lift me from the floor to the standing position . . . Also she learned to drive great distances.

With Ruth at the wheel, Arthur, toddler David, and infant Robert made the 500-mile trip to Oxford, Mississippi, and back during the period at Warm Springs.

Polio FDR 2The healing pools at Warm Springs had been discovered, purchased, and developed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, following his own bout with polio and permanent paralysis of his legs in 1921. He created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation in 1927, dedicated to the rehabilitation of polio patients. Roosevelt visited the site frequently and mingled with patients in the pools, even while he was President from 1933 until 1945. The camaraderie initiated by Roosevelt contributed to the healing process, as Arthur recognized, “not so much because of any medical miracles that could be performed there, but instead because of the fellowship among the patients.”

Franklin Roosevelt died there in a small residence called the Little White House, a little more than a year before Arthur Guyton arrived. The cause of death was uncontrolled hypertension, a condition that Arthur in later decades would define more clearly than anyone before him.

Medical miracles would have to wait until the discovery of vaccines a decade later. However, muscles weakened by polio could be strengthened by appropriate exercise to a level approximately twice that left by the disease. That was a chief aim of 7 months of physical therapy for Arthur at Warm Springs, along with learning balance, designing braces, and fitting crutches. He learned to walk with crutches, although much of each day he would spend in a wheelchair. An unspoken, yet hugely important goal was to re-establish the will to achieve.

I visited Warm Springs in the mid-1990s and later at a family reunion in 2008. The fact that my father rebuilt his life there with the help of the dedicated staff hit me with a powerful feeling, both anxious and grateful, that arched across time. The historic quadrangle is preserved. Some indoor pools remained in use at the time of my first visit. In 2008 we walked in quiet contemplation beside the main outdoor pool, empty then, trying to glimpse the shattered and re-forming dreams of people like our father. In a nearby building where more specialized rehabilitation work occurred, I saw a rotating metal hoist and sling, employed to lift patients from their wheelchairs over the edge of a pool and into the warm water.

Polio - ACG at Warm Springs
Arthur Guyton, age 27, at Warm Springs, Georgia,   (in the wheelchair at left)

The Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation continues to operate, though in a much reduced mode for people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. Today polio is almost eradicated from the earth, as smallpox already is; political difficulties remain with resistance to vaccination by some groups suspicious of international motives.

At the Warm Springs information center, I met Mike Shaddix, historian and archivist for the Institute. He introduced me to an older man, whose name I don’t remember, who was one of the main brace makers. That was a journey into the past. Arthur in 1946-1947 visited the brace shop to learn how to make braces himself. The old fellow must have met him at that critical time and probably taught him techniques and tricks to help people walk. In the FDR museum I saw braces made in the same pattern my father used the rest of his life.

While Arthur went through the program at Warm Springs, he could not build things as he was accustomed to do. Again in his words,

…but I could do all the drawing I wanted to do, so I drew designs for a “walking” leg brace and a motor-powered wheelchair. Later, I changed my big, long brace into a device that had a ratchet at the knee in such a way that, after I swung my right foot forward, the knee ratchet would lock, and then I could put my weight on the leg without any fear of it giving way, so I could walk on it. And then, when I was ready to take another step, the ratchet would unlock and I could swing that foot forward. Later on, when I left Warm Springs and went home, I decided to use a spring at the ankle instead of a jointed, solid brace to keep the foot from dropping. I made the one that I am still wearing today 50 years ago, and still using it. I also designed a motorized type of wheelchair so that those who could not use their arms to move a chair could still get around.

His surgical career aborted, Arthur moved in mid-1947 with Ruth and the 2 little boys to Oxford, Mississippi, into a small house owned by his father. He would face little ice and snow there, and the family would get plenty of support. He immediately supervised the transformation of a shed in the back yard into a shop. At one time he also installed a chicken coop so that the family could eat well cheaply. It stunk, not exactly appropriate for living in town, and chicken raising lasted only a year or two.

Ruth found in her mother-in-law, Kate Smallwood Guyton, a kindred heart who became “Mom” to her and who made Mississippi the best place in the world to live. Ruth learned that the Scandinavian habit of baking dozens of rolls to serve over the next week wouldn’t pass in Mississippi. At Mom’s house “biscuits were baked one panful at a time and brought straight from the oven to the table.”

Each of them had traveled to China, Ruth for 6 months at age 14 and Kate for 5 years shortly after college. They shared an ecumenical kind of Christian faith, and Ruth quickly joined University Methodist Church. 

Polio - ACG electric wheelchair 2
Arthur with right hand on the joystick, showing the electric wheelchair to government officials.

Arthur’s muscles worked well enough to start building things again. To his mastery of the metal lathe and electrical devices, he added arc welding. He built the motorized electric wheelchair that he had planned in Warm Springs. Our father knew that polio patients might have very little strength in their hands, and he made the steering mechanism as small and simple as possible. It was a joystick, perhaps the first ever small electrical joystick. The shaft of the joystick made contact with one of 4 surfaces to make the wheelchair go forward, right, backward, or left. To turn right or left the large wheels would rotate in opposite directions, so that the wheelchair had essentially a zero turning radius, just as it needed to negotiate tight corners in a small house. I came along in 1948, and I envied my 2 brothers who were navigating around the house in that wheelchair. The machine was novel, and he patented it.

A paralyzed person can find it difficult to do certain simple things. How do you get up from a bathtub when your legs have too little strength? One answer is to take a shower, but at that time showers were still a novelty. Arthur ordered a reversing motor from his favorite catalog, W.W. Grainger, and built a hoist to raise himself from the tub, controlled by 2 strings threaded through eye bolts to pull the motor’s switch back and forth.

News came to Oxford that Arthur would receive a Presidential Citation for his design of apparatus to benefit the handicapped. He might have thought about a career in the business world, profiting from his skill in mechanical design. However, medical science would be his passion, especially physiology or “how things work” in the body. He sold the patent for the electric wheelchair to the Everest & Jennings Company for $100, saying later, “I didn’t want to make money off polio.”

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Photo credits (mostly family photos) and footnotes to be added.

[1] Brinson, p.49.

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One thought on “Water to Cripple and Heal

  1. Johnny,
    Thanks so much for sharing this intimate view of your dad’s journey through polio. Tommy and I had the priviledge of taking you father’s Physiology class in Medical and Nursing School. And of course my dad was in Sunday School with your mom for so many years. I believe God used them in mighty ways!
    Hope you and family are doing well,
    God Bless,
    Becky

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