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My name is Margaret Ashley Beard-Fosnow. I am a 36 year old Missouri mom raising kids in what feels a maddeningly never ending, constantly changing without improving COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I was named after my paternal grandmother pictured here holding the baby and surrounded by her other 7 children. This photo, probably her last, was taken a few months before she contracted a virus, 65 years ago, and died at the age of 36.

On July 30,1955 Margaret Beard and my grandfather, Bill, attended a church social where she served pies that she had baked fresh, in true 1955 farm wife fashion, earlier that day. While at the event, Margaret started to feel sick. She told Bill, “I need to go to the car and lie down.” Bill said, “I will go tell everyone ‘goodbye’ and I’ll be out.” On the drive home Bill noticed from the rearview mirror that every so often Margaret would sit up suddenly and then lay back down on the back seat without a word.

When they got home Bill got out, opened the back door and said, “Come on, Marg, we’re home.” But she couldn’t get up. He reached in and pulled her out of the car and carried her into the house. After a series of calls to multiple physicians, an ambulance was summoned to rush Margaret to the University of Missouri Hospital in Columbia, were the only unoccupied iron lung in the region awaited her. She made it to hospital but never reached the ventilator; she died in the elevator at 8:30am on July 31, 1955 of bulbar polio.

Polio spreads from person to person through contaminated food or water, fecal matter entering the mouth, or saliva. The disease is diagnosed by detecting antibodies in the blood. In 98% of the cases, polio is a mild illness with little or no viral-like symptoms. While 95-99% of people who contract polio are asymptomatic, they can still spread the virus for up to 6 weeks. Fewer than 1% of people who contract polio become paralyzed. In severe cases the throat or chest become paralyzed. Death may result if one such patient does not receive artificial breathing support. The type Margaret contracted, bulbar polio, occurs when the virus destroys nerves within the bulbar region of the brain stem. She died of a highly contagious rare disease that rarely killed people of her age. She died 3½ months after Salk’s vaccine was declared “safe and effective” on April 12, 1955. Distribution just didn’t make it to a poor Missouri farmer’s wife in time which makes me wonder how they decided who got the vaccine first as it was rolled out?

My father was 13 years old the morning that his father drove up the gravel rode to tell my dad and his brother Larry, who were hauling water to the house- because they were too poor for indoor plumbing, that their mother was dead and that they need to come up to the house. Vera is 13 this summer and it is hard for me to imagine how she would react to such traumatic news. At the same time, thinking about it makes the disappointments of 2020 feel rather trivial.

While more people died in car accidents than polio in those days, public terror of the disease closed schools and businesses in communities across the nation. An outbreak in Festus, Missouri in 1946 cancelled all 4H events for the year, local schools shut down, and public officials warned the public not to congregate in large groups. In 1949, Kansas City pools closed for the summer because of polio. Campfire Girls’ camp also closed that year in Knob Knoster. In 1952, a wave of polio struck Warrensburg, Missouri. Three polio deaths and twelve cases of the disease within the city, caused officials to regard it as an epidemic. All public schools and parks in Warrensburg, Centerview and Leeton were ordered closed and classes for the 1,400 students of Central Missouri State College were halted.

If you remember what the world was like with polio or can recall the summer of 1955 in Missouri- I would really love to hear your stories. [….]

Ashley Beard-Fosnow [2015 file photo].