Sioux City Polio Epidemic 1952

Flooded Sioux City, 2011, fema.govI was raised in Sioux City, Iowa, a town of about 80,000 people on the western edge of the state, where the Big Sioux and Floyd rivers join the Missouri. Much of the town’s history and identity comes from the rivers — French fur traders used them for transporting goods, Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri, burying their only casualty on a bluff above the river in what is now Sioux City, and later, steamboats and barges moved material up and down the river. As they did in 2011, the rivers frequently flooded, with disastrous consequences. I hadn’t known that a flood in 1952 was linked to a polio epidemic in the town.

My parents, both Sioux City natives, vividly remember their polio fears in Sioux City during the 1950s. They were adolescents at the time, and they recall the summers when polio flared: the pools were closed and friends disappeared from the neighborhood. The summer of 1952 was particularly bad: a heavy winter of snow followed by sudden warm temperatures in March led all three rivers to flood and disable the sewage system. Perhaps due to the compromised water supply, polio cases began to climb, filling the city’s hospitals. The hospitals procured 11 iron lungs to treat the patients who had paralysis of respiratory muscles. (The iron lung shown here is one used at St. Vincent Hospital in Sioux City; it is on display at the Sioux City Museum.) In this piece from the Sioux City Journal, two survivors of the epidemic recall their treatment in local hospitals and a visit in August 1952 by Bob Hope. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Jack Dempsey also visited the polio wards in the stricken town. By July 17, there had been 12 polio deaths. In all, Sioux City reported 952 polio cases that year and 53 deaths. Nationwide, there were about 53,000 polio cases: 1952 would be the worst of the polio years.

Iron Lung, Sioux City Museum

As I’ve written about elsewhere on this site, William M. Hammon, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh, chose Sioux City as one of the trial sites for his test of gamma globulin for polio prevention. This passive immunization offered short-term protection to about 13,000 vulnerable Sioux City children beginning in July 1952. It would be two years before a more permanent form of protection, the Salk inactivated polio vaccine, would be tested in Sioux City and nationwide. The rivers would flood again, but polio would no longer be a consequence.

Many thanks to the helpful staff and volunteers at the Sioux City Museum for telling me about the iron lung and allowing me to photograph it.


July ’52 Was Worst Month in Polio Epidemic. Sioux City Journal. August 19, 2012.

Mercy Sioux City History.

Polio Spreading at Sioux City. Daily Iowan. July 17, 1952.