Early Days, 1955 Part One – Disease and the Origins of Obesity

andrew age 1

Now I am one year old and sitting up.  My parents hoped that my next steps will be walking around on those chubby little legs but this was something that could not always be guaranteed in the 1950s.

Early life was full of many dangers, mostly disease and in 1955 one in twenty children would die before they were five years old.  It had taken one hundred and fifty years to reduce this statistic from one in three.  I cannot begin to imagine living with that sort of fear, I brought up children in the 1990s when the risks were significantly reduced.

In 1955 there was a major medical breakthrough with the introduction of a vaccine to prevent the spread of an illness that caused widespread panic and fear amongst parents.


Polio, or to be strictly correct Poliomyelitis is all but eradicated now, there are still some cases in Africa, but was previously right up there along with smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis with the World’s most deadly contagions.

1955 polio vaccine

Polio is a highly infectious and unpleasant disease that affects the nervous system, often resulting in paralysis or death. It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and dirty swimming pool water.   Even though the disease had been around for much of human history, major polio epidemics were unknown before the twentieth century and only began to regularly occur in Europe in the early nineteenth century and soon after became widespread in the United States as cities got bigger and a lack of hygiene and poor sanitation created serious health hazards.

By 1910 much of the world experienced a dramatic increase in polio cases and frequent epidemics became regular events, primarily in these big cities during the summer months.  In the USA there was a devastating epidemic in 1952 and after the nuclear bomb it became the thing that most Americans feared most.  In the UK there were about four thousand recorded cases every year.  There was no known cure for the disease and it became an imperative to discover a vaccine so when this came along this was really good news and the World breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The man responsible was a medical researcher and virologist called Jonas Salk.  Salk was subsequently revered as though he were a Saint not least because with no interest in personal profit there was no registered patent for the vaccine.  Rather belatedly, on May 6th 1985, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that day to be ‘Jonas Salk Day’.

1955 jonas salk

There were a number of forms of polio with varying degrees of seriousness but the one that you really didn’t want to catch was spinal polio which was a viral invasion of the motor neurons in the spinal column which rather importantly are responsible for movement of the muscles, including those of the body and the major limbs.

When spinal neurons die degeneration takes place leading to weakness of muscles and with the destruction of nerve cells they no longer receive signals from the brain or spinal cord and without nerve stimulation the muscles becoming weak, floppy and poorly controlled, and finally completely paralysed.  Progression to maximum paralysis is as quick as two to four days.

1955 polio collection box

Not being a qualified doctor I have massively simplified the medical details here of course but one thing that was absolutely certain was that polio was a very nasty business indeed and parents were understandably worried sick about it because if you caught it at best you would spend the rest of your life in leg irons or at worst in an iron lung (or to give it its proper name a negative pressure ventilator).

1955 iron lung

The vaccine was administered by an especially nasty injection which if you were unlucky left an ugly crater in the top of the arm but that was a small price to pay for peace of mind.  Later it was administered orally with a few drops on a sugar cube but I suspect health and obesity fanatics would frown upon that now.  I’ll deal with that later.  Thankfully, polio is now practically unheard of in those countries that use the vaccine.

Polio wasn’t the only killer of course and there were also vaccines and injections for other unpleasant nasties like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis.  I can still remember the mere mention of suspected smallpox leading to mild panic by my mother.  And then there were the common children’s diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox which could also be killers themselves but generally just made you feel rather poorly for a day or two.

To protect against them there were regular trips to the doctor’s surgery for inoculations against them all and there were so many pricks in your arm that by the time you were six years old your arm began to look a bit like a needle worker’s pin cushion.

Today in the UK infant deaths before the age of five are over one in two hundred.

Just out of interest, as well as being ‘Jonas Salk Day’, May 6th is now also celebrated as ‘International No Diet Day’ (an annual celebration of body acceptance and body shape diversity and for raising awareness of the potential dangers of dieting).

I mention this here because with the  nightmare of polio finally under control another health problem was started in 1955 because  a man called Ray Kroc came along and unwittingly unleashed a new monster and the beginning of the western world obesity problem when he opened the ninth McDonalds franchise restaurant, in Des Plaines, Illinois, which eventually led to the McDonalds Corporation and a world domination that Ersnt Blofeld could only have dreamed about.

More about this next time…

1955 obesity

I have still got the chubby legs…

Moroccan Tea Garden 10

37 responses to “Early Days, 1955 Part One – Disease and the Origins of Obesity

  1. Idiots are trying to bring all them diseases back because, you know, vaccines be “bad”.

    Three years ago is the first time I got a booster shot because in some places the vaccination rates are dropping below the herd immunity threshold. Annoying but not as annoying as if I had kids of my own.

    I’m not sure about blaming McDonald for obesity. I mean, it’s certainly easier than taking responsibility, blaming others is. This might be an interesting read (and factual):



    • I am not blaming them exactly but saying they and others provided the opportunity to eat in an unhealthy way.


      • The point is, their food is not any more “unhealthy” than any other food.

        . . . I wonder if that logic works with other instances in our lives . . . I don’t blame nice roads exactly but I’m saying they provided the opportunity to drive over the speed limit . . . I don’t blame sofas exactly but I’m saying they provided the opportunity to lounge comfortably for long periods of time and do nothing . . . I don’t blame bakers exactly but I’m saying they provided the opportunity to eat copious amounts of bread . . . Same for brewers and beer and farmers and food in general.


      • That should be “food” not “good” at the end of the first paragraph.


    • Interesting link. I remember the programme or one like it. It was nonsense of course and McDonald’s responded by saying how mad it would be to live entirely on their product.

      Yesterday I had a double cheeseburger which is always my favourite!


  2. I’m enjoying these posts looking back in time, albeit a little before mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember hearing the story of how Ian Dury caught polio and it was so simple and yet so horrific. I wonder what contributions communal swimming pools made. They can’t have been very clean in the 1950s, Hardly anything in the public domain was!


  4. Excellent post, Andrew, it rang true on every count – even the fact that I too had children in the 90’s and couldn’t help but compare their healthy childhood to that of many children the 1950’s. I grew up then, and I had the polio vaccine – I also had a cousin who had polio and has worn a caliper all his life. Even though I thought I was a chubby child, when I look back I actually wasn’t, plus I walked and cycled everywhere, we had no central heating, no double-glazing and food cooked by mum was mostly grown in the garden by dad.
    Looking forward to the next part of this!


  5. Fascinating slice of history of our time


  6. This hits close to home as my younger brother had polio during the scare in the early 50s. It was caught early and he spent 3 months away in a hospital. During that time his leg stopped growing, he was about 18 months old at the time. He had to wear a built-up shoe to make the difference until he stopped growing. He has a very slight limp now. I recall it was a scary time and mom and dad were very upset. I can’t believe some parents don’t want their children vaccinated now.


  7. This is a very important post Andrew for many different reasons, health wise, sociological, and political. I’m not saying any more as I’ll no doubt be “blasted” on Twitter, but some of us had to “endure” to make our country a better place. 👍


  8. I am so angry at all this anti vaccination nonsense going on.. I feel desperate for a parent who thinks something from the vaccine caused a danger to their child but how many other thousands are being saved.. also over simplified but imagine if we went back to that iron lung.. ;-(


  9. I remember both the vaccinations and the sugar lump, also those collecting boxes outside shops. I agree with all the commenters lambasting the anti-vax folk.


  10. The latest villain seems to be sugar for causing obesity. I noticed early on that I never saw a thin person drinking diet sodas. It seemed to suggest that diet drinks made folks fat, 🙄


  11. I’m pretty sure there were no vaccines against chickenpox when we were kids. You just got it and were done with it. (Edit: And having Googled it, the first patented vaccine became available in 1995).


  12. I agree with you Andrew. Fast foods have a lot to do with obesity, fast foods that began in America and unfortunately came here. Obesity hit the Americans first and then as in everything else they do, first we followed suit! Alcohol also pays a big part, and I am as guilty here as anyone else.
    Thank you for another interesting article.


  13. Amazing to me that there’s still a strong resemblance to the ‘you’ of today in that first baby photo 🙂 🙂 And I think you’re lovely! (don’t tell Kim 🙂 )


  14. I remember taking the sugar cube, Andrew, and being quite thankful it was’t the mini-pronged instrument of torture that they had been using, which left a very unusual scar. Good post. –Curt


  15. I had polio as a child, some of my earliest memories are being alone in the isolation room/ward of the Upney Hospital, Barking before the war, I was around 2,
    My mother had taken me out of the push chair/stroller they call them now and stood me up and I fell over, she stood me up again and again I fell, so she slapped my legs hard, thought I was playing around, I recall laughing, I didn’t feel a thing, she cottoned on that something was amiss and I got stuck in hospital’ Apparently I was the mongrel carrying and/or passing on the disease. When I recovered everything I had in the hospital was destroyed. I never suffered any disability after I recovered. How long I was paralysed I don’t know, I never asked and was never told!


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