19 fascinating pictures to remind us what polio used to look like.
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March of Dimes

My dad had weird feet.

He was born in 1942, and when he was just a few years old, he caught polio. He survived the disease, but it affected the way his legs and feet grew — one foot was always a shoe size or two smaller than the other one. I remember being fascinated by them when I was little.

Though polio affected my father, I myself have never been in danger of contracting it.

In fact, the disease has disappeared completely from the United States, and we're incredibly close to eliminating it worldwide.


But as much as we should celebrate its passing, we should also remember what it was like when polio affected people everywhere. And though these photos may be somber, they should also give us hope; they prove that we can overcome the worst obstacles and most pernicious infections. After all, we've done it before.

Check out these photos of what polio looked like when my dad was a kid.

Polio was a scourge. It could affect anyone. But it preyed most heavily on children.

A child paralyzed by polio in 1947. Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images.

A young patient getting fit with a respirator in 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images.

Polio's actually a lot older than my father was. We even have paintings of it from ancient Egypt.

This over-3,300-year-old Egyptian stele is thought to depict a polio victim. Image via Deutsches Grünes Kreuz/Wikimedia Commons.

For most of that time, polio was content to remain quiet.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, it became a killer. In 1952, an outbreak killed over 3,000 people and paralyzed over 21,000 in the U.S. alone.

Photo from Douglas Grundy/Three Lions/Getty Images.

Polio is a virus passed mostly through contaminated food and water. And as long as we humans were spread out, it never got the momentum to really become a problem. But as cities grew and, ironically, better sanitation came about and removed some of our natural exposure to it, polio suddenly found a weak spot in our defenses.

Children were most at risk of contracting the virus – hence one of its common names: infantile paralysis.

Photo by Sonnee Gottlieb/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

In most cases, it's either harmless or mild, like a case of the flu. But in some people, polio can cause serious, sometimes permanent paralysis.

A paralyzed kid at London's Queen Mary's Hospital in 1947. Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images.

If the virus ends up in the central nervous system, it interrupts our body's ability to communicate with our muscles, causing paralysis. And if the paralysis lasts for a long time, the muscles themselves can start to waste away, a process known as atrophy.

This is already bad, but there's one more cruel twist to the disease. If a child is the one who gets paralyzed, the muscle atrophy can end up affecting the way their bones grow. That's what happened with my dad and why his feet looked so weird.

If the diaphragm was paralyzed, patients would need respirators to be able to breathe. Some respirators were portable, like this one.

A portable respirator from 1955. Photo by Hans Meyer/BIPs/Getty Images.

For a given value of "portable."

Others, like the iron lung, effectively trapped you inside.

An iron lung in 1938. Photo from London Express/Getty Images.

If you did recover, you may have still needed regular physical therapy to strengthen the atrophied muscles. Aquatic therapy was popular.

Photo by Juliette Lasserre/BIPs/Getty Images.

At its height, polio was one of the great public specters. People were terrified of it. Public pools were closed in a misguided effort to stop the spread. Houses were quarantined.

A board of health warning circa 1910. Image from National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons.

There were public health campaigns and donation drives to help fuel research, like the March of Dimes.

A cartoon from 1943. Image from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

Still, nobody seemed safe. Even President Franklin Roosevelt had it, although he was careful about hiding his paralysis from the outside world.

A rare photograph of FDR in his wheelchair. Image from Margaret Suckley/Wikimedia Commons.

It was one of the great scourges of its time.

Then, in the early 1950s, Jonas Salk invented the first polio vaccine.

Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Salk was a researcher and virologist who joined the fight against polio in the late 1940s. Initially tasked with identifying different strains of the virus, Salk and his team saw an opportunity to try to prevent the disease altogether, and their work paid off.

Manufacturers began to mass produce it.

Workers at England's Glaxo company in 1956. Photo from Fox Photos/Getty Images.

Suddenly, people could save their children from this awful disease.

Photo by Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

As people became immunized against it, the disease had a harder and harder time spreading between populations. Numbers of infections started to fall.

And, slowly, polio transformed from a demonic specter into a manageable disease, then, eventually, into a distant memory.

A woman examines a gigantic model of a single polio virus capsule in 1959. Photo from Fox Photos/Getty Images.

Thanks to the vaccines created by Salk and other researchers, most of the world began to forget this disease.

Today, we're on the cusp of eradicating polio altogether. Its last holdouts are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

A child afflicted with polio in Afghanistan in 2009. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

We're really close. In fact, one of polio's three strains has already been eliminated.

Photo by A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images.

Which is why the U.N. switched to a two-strain vaccine in May of 2016.

In 2015, there were only 74 recorded cases of polio in the entire world. Just 74!

A Pakistani child receives the oral polio vaccine in 2016. Photo from Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images.

Polio has no natural reservoir. It has no place to hide. Once it's gone, it's gone.

We might never be able to eliminate the flu because it can hide in so many animals, like birds or pigs. But polio only infects humans. So when all humans are immunized, polio will disappear.

We're so close to eliminating a horrible disease thanks to researchers like Salk and workers dedicated to administering vaccinations. There are occasional setbacks, such as a recent shortage of the new vaccine, but researchers hope to completely eliminate the disease by the end of this decade.

We can overcome the worst demons. We have before. And we can do it again.

In the future, the only place where polio will exist is in picture archives like these. And the memories of my dad's poor feet.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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