Polio–Dexter, Iowa

From a 1951 Dexter Sentinel.

Imagine being a 7-year-old child from rural Dexter, in a Des Moines hospital for isolation with other sick children, only able to see your family through an outside window (along with other families, who were also in tears), later taken in a wheelchair to visit a neighbor boy who was in an iron lung, losing the use of your arm because of a virus for which there was no vaccine, then enduring weeks of painful therapy, even after returning home to your family’s farm.

Marilyn Lawson’s neighbor boy, Kenneth Carter, age 10, died in that iron lung.

The Dexter Museum has a copy of Marilyn (Lawson) Bode’s children’s story called “My Mean Mom,” about when she endured polio and its ravages in late 1952. What a frightening time for parents back then, not knowing how the disease was spread, and doctors could only isolate the patient, letting the virus run its course, then assess how much muscle damage had been done before starting physical therapy. The Dexter Library also has a copy of Marilyn’s book, which was illustrated by her grandson.


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Dexter First and Second Grade students with teacher Nell Bookout. Receiving the Salk Vaccine, May 1954.

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History of the iron lung, on Our American Stories.


  1. An interesting look into the past when polio could not be countered in the way it can be today – an advantage of the progress in medicine.

    • Yes! Marilyn is a friend from grade school. She credits her mother with making her go through the exercises, so that now she still plays the piano, even at nursing homes!

  2. Joy, I had almost forgotten that story that I posted on the website. How did you find it? Anyway, people who had had polio were invited to write about it and post it several years ago. Then I got a reply from a little girl in some school in Iowa who wanted to know if she could interview me. Her class had an assignment to find out more about something that happened “in olden times.” So I gave her my number and she called. She had developed the questions to ask and she conducted the interview. I hope she got a good grade because she did a good job on the interview.

    • I googled “polio” when I first worked on the story, and I may have added Iowa to that. Just poking around on the internet and it came up. How long ago was your interview? She will never forget that, Marilyn!

    • This post is an “ad” for the Dexter Museum, but I also shared it on the Dallas County History FB page, and Forgotten Iowa, where it’s got a lot more readers, commenters, and sharers. FB can certainly enhance a website.

  3. This post was painful to read, but I think it’s important to inform new generations just how devastating these diseases we’re now vaccinated against truly were.

  4. I graduated as a nurse in 1964. Prior to that we seldom saw any polio patients. We did have one that was admitted to pediatrics every time he developed a respiratory infection, because he required an iron lung because his lungs were weak. One night the electricity went off and even emergency electricity would not run the iron lung. There was a handle on the side that could be pulled out to pump by hand. It required the strength of a good sized man to do it. I remember a short doctor did this and every time he went down, the handle returned naturally to the up position literally making his feet fly off the floor. I had the opportunity once as a student to get into an iron lung. The pressure was intense and you had to go with it’s rhythm not your own. If you couldn’t breath, I imagine the pressure was a relief. I wondered why the iron lungs were put together in a stacked and side by side group, like I have seen in old pictures. Was it so kids wouldn’t feel so lonely? Were they easier to care for all together? Sister Kinney, I believe that was her name, designed the exercise and other treatments applied to people who lost the use of their limbs. I remember in grade school one summer when the swimming pool in our town closed down due to polio scares. My husbands aunt had polio and recovered to the point that she could raise 4 children with only minor difficulty. In later years she developed post polio syndrome which was common in older people who had had polio when they were younger.

  5. Fascinating story. My college roommate had had polio as a child. She was studying to be a nurse. She was barely 5 feet tall but could lift me at 160 pounds and 5’6″ off the floor. She was incredibly sty.

  6. My cousin Chris (Bond) Scar had polio as a child. I don’t remember much about it as I am sure we were kept away from her. She had a mild case and doesn’t have any lasting effects.

    • There was one the class behind me with both legs in braces and used crutches. She graduated in 1963. O believe she uses a wheelchair now. In fact, she was a classmate of the girl who wrote the children’s book about having polio.

  7. Although she never knew anyone who had polio, my wife grew up in Adair Iowa and lived there during the the 40s and 50s. I lived in New York City and remember a neighbor girl who had leg braces and walked with crutches. It was a scary disease.

    • Especially for those who’ve had it recur decades later. Marilyn’s home then was along what is now called Adair-Madison Road. She lived on the Madison County side. Adair is at the west end of what is still referred to as White Pole Road. Dexter is the east end of it.

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