Ghost Town Tension: Post-War Public Health and Commerce in a Rural Virginian Polio Epidemic, 1950

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Virginia Tech


This thesis is a study of a post-World War II polio epidemic in one small Southwest Virginian town before widespread application of the vaccine. While others have explored urban public health responses to polio and national efforts to promote prevention and treatment efforts, in this history I look at reactions to the disease at the local level in this rural community particularly hard-hit by an acute medical event.

The central question addressed in the research is how the polio epidemic changed the nature of community. Prior to the polio epidemic in this rural Southwest Virginian town, community meant creating and strengthening social ties throughout town—most visibly through large social functions and leisure gatherings such as church or baseball. Through identifying and analyzing reactions to the epidemic among families/individuals, the public health, and business, a transition emerged. Being a part of community during the summer polio epidemic meant protecting the public health while simultaneously protecting economic health as a backbone and lifeline of the family.



1950, Wytheville, Virginia, poliomyelitis