Sunday, February 12, 2017

Polio Epidemic of 1916 in Brooklyn, NY.

I can remember when I was growing up talking to my paternal grandmother Agnes King Warner about her family.  One of the many stories I remember her telling me is about one of her sisters-Louisa.  Louisa died at a young age and my grandmother remembered that there had been a sign put on their house door when Louisa got sick.  She said the younger children were sent to stay elsewhere and the older children were not allowed to leave the house.  My grandmother thought Louisa may have had polio but no one would ever tell her what happened.  So, I decided to see what I could find out about Louisa.
polio quarantine sign
Polio quarantine cards, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
My grandmother was the third of eight children (George Jr., Lillian, Agnes, Louisa, Anna, Sadie, John and Robert) born to George Washington King and Sarah Rowan King.   The children were born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  Agnes and Louisa (perhaps named after her grandfather Louis) were about 18 months apart in age.

I was able to locate Louisa’s death certificate:
King Louisa death highlighted
Well, it doesn’t say Polio as a cause of death but could Chronic Endocarditis and Cardiac Decompensation over 7 days be related to Polio?  I decided to do some researching about Polio and Brooklyn, NY in 1916.  This is some of the information I found from a variety of sources:
  • There was a major Polio Epidemic in 1916 that began in Brooklyn, NY in June.  Louisa died barely a month later in Brooklyn, NY.
  • “On Saturday, June 17, 1916, an official announcement of the existence of an epidemic polio infection was made in Brooklyn, New York. That year, there were over 27,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths due to polio in the United States, with over 2,000 deaths in New York City alone.  The names and addresses of individuals with confirmed polio cases were published daily in the press, their houses were identified with placards, and their families were quarantined.” according to the History of Poliomyelitis on Wikipedia.  My grandmother remembered there being a sign on the house.
  • This Polio Epidemic is considered one of the top 10 epidemics in the US to date.
  • The epidemic began with 2 children in the Italian community in Brooklyn in May with 2 more in the next street following the first known cases.  By the end of the month there had been 24 cases in Brooklyn,   On 1 June there were 17 new cases in Brooklyn and by the end of June there had been 646 cases in that borough.  After 2 weeks 150 children had been affected in five city boroughs. In spite of efforts at quarantine, by August the epidemic had spread to New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and upstate New York.   In New York there had been 8,900 cases of paralysis with 2,448 deaths.
  • Polio mainly affected children under 5 (about 80%) and was referred to as Infantile Paralysis, the crippler of children.
  • Polio was spread through food or water due to poor sanitation or by infected person to person contact.
  • New York officials scrubbed the streets with four million gallons of water per day to halt the spread of Polio but nothing seemed to help.
  • Events were cancelled, children were confined to their homes.   During the hottest days of summer, pools, movie theaters, schools and camps were closed.  My grandmother remembered being kept inside.
  • As suddenly as the disease flared, it died down.  With the first frost, the incidence plunged.  But that summer had been a killer. 
  • First vaccine for Polio was developed by Jonas Salk in the 1950s.

I reviewed the pages from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper around the time of my Great Aunt’s death.  Every day they posted names of those who died from Polio.  Each day they listed the street address of newly confirmed cases of polio.  A white flag was placed at the end of streets where there were cases of polio.

The following information from the Health Department was posted in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper 14 July 1916:
I have been unable to find Louisa’s name or address in the newspaper listings of new cases or deaths from Polio.  I’m sure not all deaths were able to be identified in the newspaper.  While I can’t confirm for certainty that Louisa was one of the Polio victims I strongly believe she died of complications due to Polio.

Remember to look at outbreaks of diseases in areas where your ancestors died.  It was very interesting to read the newspapers from that time period to see what people believed about the illnesses of their day.  You never know where your research will lead you.

If you have any corrections or additions or stories to share I look forward to hearing them.
Enjoy the journey,


  1. The epidemics were always scary. I don't think any of my ancestors were affected by this one in New York, but certainly by others like the 1918 flu epidemic.

  2. I was amazed by some of the things they did like post the names in the paper. I guess that led to the shame I felt went along with the disease.

  3. My grandmother was affected by this epidemic. It left her without hair and a mild paralysis on her side (don't remember which side). She was lucky to have survived.

  4. So sorry to hear about your grandmother but yes, so glad she survived. So many were affected. Did she live in Brooklyn as well?

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