Date of Award

Spring 2022

Degree Type

Honors Project


College of Liberal Arts

First Advisor

Nurith Zmora


The 1940s and 50s’ polio epidemics resulted in the illness, death, and paralysis of thousands of children throughout the United States. Unlike other illnesses spread by poor sanitation which usually affected the lower classes, polio cases were far more prevalent among the middle class. Middle class neighborhoods’ conditions did not allow for natural immunity in early childhood. Prior research explored the urban and suburban middle class families in highly infected states like New York. However, the experiences of Midwesterners were largely ignored. In crowded city neighborhoods, polio could spread rapidly in a short period of time and then die down as people became immune through exposure, while sparsely populated rural areas faced unpredictable epidemics. The Midwest’s periodic outbreaks resulted in local restrictions to protect the at-risk youth from the deadly virus. Through interviews with residents from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Dakota, who lived during the polio epidemics, alongside the study of newspapers from the interviewees’ towns, as well as public health reports, this study examined these Midwesterners’ perception of polio and the ways media and government alerted them to the danger. Findings indicate that urban and rural people reacted differently to the epidemics. In cities, the community enacted preventive measures, while in small towns, responsibility for safety was an individual choice. In times of epidemics, this knowledge might assist in better direct communication with the diverse populations of the U.S.








Departmental Honors Projects