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Waiting Room Observations

The Age of Polio. Explosion. Part 12.

Polio color Egypt

Editor's note:  We invite you to read the entire series here.

By Dan Olmsted

When Mrs. G.H. Franklin woke up after collapsing on the floor of her Brooklyn ice cream parlor on June 19, 1916, she found herself in a ward at St. Mary’s Hospital, paralyzed. She was 56 years old. Just two days earlier, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a story on its front page headlined “24 Cases of Infant Paralysis in the Boro; Health Board Acts.”

Polio 12 1

Despite the timing, doctors were loathe to describe Mrs. Franklin's case as polio. For one thing she simply seemed too old for infantile paralysis -- the oldest person in the health department case files that summer.  “The hospital records show that the case was considered some type of meningitis altho a lumbar puncture showed nothing abnormal,” according to a health department report. “On July 8 she was brought to her son’s home at 1250 Curtis Avenue, Woodhaven, Queens. On July 30, after she left, her grandsons Herbert and Calvin were taken acutely ill, the former promptly being diagnosed poliomyelitis, the diagnosis in the latter not yet known. “On July 15, Mrs. Franklin moved to 4559 Metropolis Avenue, Queens, and nine days after arriving there, her grandson Willy was taken ill and also Edith Smith, the daughter of another tenant in the same house. Both proved to have poliomyelitis.

“An interesting sidelight on this problem is the fact that on June 1, when Mrs. Franklin was first taken ill at 1295 Gates Avenue, an Italian baby on the top floor became suddenly ill and died within 24 hours, no diagnosis being made.”  Trying to untangle the coincidences from the  clues was beyond the health department’s ken. Yet the department spent a lot of its time building up voluminous files on each case and tracking down every possible contact. This was a misadventure if the hypothesis I've laid out in earlier segments is true, because it continually missed the environmental trigger -- low levels of arsenic in sugar that had recently arrived at the refineries from Hawaii.

The environmental toxicologist who’s been helping me commented: “Arsenic in sugar would result in intermittent dosing, which is more likely to manifest in some of the other known symptoms of arsenic toxicity such as GI upset. Orally ingested arsenic is very hard on the intestines.  Orally ingested poliovirus enters the body through the intestines, which will be less able to fight off a viral invasion if arsenic-induced inflammation and necrosis is present.” Certainly plenty of polio cases I’ve read about from the 1916 epidemic began with that kind of stomach upset. I wonder if Mrs. Franklin got better just because she was no longer eating her own ice cream all day.


Brooklyn, where the Hawaiian sugar made port, had the first outbreak. Queens, where most of the raw sugar went to the refinery in Long Island City, had the highest polio rate per capita of the five boroughs. Yonkers, where a smaller amount went to the refinery there, had the highest number of cases of any city of its size in the country. That’s proof of nothing but it’s consistent with the “facts cluster around a good hypothesis” model.

Polio 12 2

More clues, also direct from the health department:

Polio 12 3

Here is that cluster on the health department’s map – it’s directly opposite the green square:

Polio 12 4

The refinery itself is marked in dark blue, cut off by the railroad tracks, the East River and Newtown Creek.  The neighborhood described above was as close as you could get to the refinery without setting up your home on the railroad tracks.  (For reference that’s Roosevelt Island at the top.) Here is the Long Island City refinery (the blue dot), also once the world’s largest. You can see how the complex is bounded  by the river, the creek and the railroad tracks. The cluster of houses with polio cases was to the immediate left.

Polio 12 5

In the health department's contact-tracing files now archived at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, I came across a man who worked at the Long Island City refinery..


Dept of Health

City of New York

Memorandum for Dr. J.S. Billings, Deputy Commissioner of Health, August 28, 1916


Borough of Brooklyn

Maddie Violetta – Poliomyelitis

127 Eagle Street – first floor, front

Father works in sugar factory

9.1.16 Insp. Jones investigated above case and reports as follows. Patient treated at home. Another child 4 years also at home. Father Michael Violetta employed by the National Sugar Refinery Co., Front St. Long Island City. Interviewed father and instructed him to live away from home, or discontinue work. He stated he would stay at 44 Bradley Ave., Blissville, L.I., until recovery of child and completion of renovation. Will keep under observation.


Another reference to Long Island City comes from the most affecting article about polio I’ve ever read, by a nurse named Charlotte Talley in the November 1916 issue of the American Journal of Nursing. Despite its clinical title, “Tracing the Sources and Limiting the Spread of Infantile Paralysis: Second Paper,” it is heartbreaking:

“’Blease, blease, do something,’ pleaded a Polish mother hysterically, clasping her hands in supplication, her mouth quivering. ‘They took my boy to ‘ospital and see,’ showing the bathtub full of soiled clothing, ‘here are all the clothes from the sickness and no water to wash ‘em. Landlady said she get plumber today. She gets no one.’”

Such scenes of desperation flooded the city.

“A little girl of nine had died of paralysis after a few days of great suffering. She had been a beautiful, bright, lovable child, the pride of the household,” Talley wrote. “Apparently, despite all her parents’ precautions, she had played with a neighbor child with an inapparent infection and may have been exposed to the virus that way.”

Talley shows us why polio came to be so feared -- crippling, deadly, often agonizing and utterly unpredictable -- though its prevalence was never as high as other horrible childhood diseases. And she offers two more relevant stories. In one, a Long Island City food store was forced to shut down.

Polio 12 X

This is what "unbiased minds" around New York City had been reporting -- cases clustering around various food emporiums. In this case it was right next door to the sugar factory. Then there is this remarkable vignette which needs to be read in full:

Polio 12 8

Isn't this practically a field test of the sugar hypothesis?  Five children more or less isolated, eating only garden vegetables … and foods with a lot of sugar. Condensed milk is just about half sugar. Let’s look again at the contemporary advertisement of four babies with their spoons, set to devour a can of condensed milk:

Polio 12 9


Yonkers was the other place in New York that Hawaiian sugar went. And it had the highest rate by far of polio for any city of its seize. Of course,  it’s also closer to the center of the epidemic, Brooklyn, than many other places. But check out this list, which puts Yonkers far ahead of most other cities, including close-in ones like Bayonne and Hoboken.
Polio 12 10
AOA Contributor Lou Conte grew up  in Yonkers and recalls ships offloading sugar along the East River. “You could smell the sugar in the air. It was incredibly messy process and it was obvious that some of the sugar powder became airborne.”


So the facts, and the polio cases, continued to cluster around the sugar-arsenic hypothesis. Interacting in people, mostly children, with active polio infections, a "light" arsenic exposure turned a benign summer bug into a poliomyelitis epidemic. We see the evidence in the way the early cases clustered around the Brooklyn port where the sugar arrived; we see it in  Queens and Yonkers, with the two sugar refineries and the highest proportion of cases. We see it in the kinds of foods that ordinary people came to suspect; we see it in the health department's own list of "provision" stores around which cases repeatedly clustered, notably in Long Island City. We see it in the remarkable story of four out of five children in one isolated family.

And we see it in baffling sagas like Mrs. Franklin's. By early August, she was “able to get up and walk around, but when I saw her today she had a temperature of 100 2/3 and has not good use of her arms yet,” the public health worker said. “She has been attended by nine different physicians in the past 2.5 months. All diagnosed her case differently, but the last said she had a light case of meningitis." Which matches a "light" case of arsenic exposure.

As the epidemic began spreading beyond the confines of New York’s five boroughs, that diagnosis was about to change as well.


Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.




benzene hexachloride (BHC) Hmmm interesting.
Lindan interferes with GABA , and used for scabies and lice. Wow

Frank Truth Seeker

Also, one HUGE thing I neglected to mention in my previous reply is the role of another pesticide, which above certain levels correlated most strongly with the poliomyelitis epidemic of the mid 20th century, and that is benzene hexachloride (BHC), which the following article - which includes graphs of production of various paralytic pesticides vs. poliomyelitis rates - describes as "several times more lethal than DDT" and points out the correlation between its production and poliomyelitis rates about 2 years later is "astonishing":

In fact, it appears BHC was by far the main culprit at the peak of the poliomyelitis epidemic, rather than the arsenic compounds and DDT that get the most publicity.

Fortunately it was phased out because it was found to impart a bad taste to food, which is certainly telling regarding exposure via the food supply.

Keep up the great work!

Frank Truth Seeker

Being a very busy man, I was only able to scan your articles. Great work, much appreciated.

Based on my much less extensive but highly focused research, the evidence indicates that the polio virus is but a harmless enterovirus that has been FRAMED for poliomyelitis, and has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Therefore, I never use the term "polio" for the disease.

For one, acute flaccid paralysis is epidemic in India, with tens of thousands of cases reported per year among a population that is overwhelmingly vaccinated for polio viruses. There are even calls for discontinuation of the vaccine, which may help because of a reduction of toxic exposures in people who would otherwise be vaccinated:

Are you aware of the following study of indigenous people that found nearly 100% infection rates in the population, but absence of paralytic disease (see pgs. 72 and 78 of the PDF).

It is also well known that polio virus was found in fecal specimens of only about 1/3 the people who were stricken by an outbreak in Michigan in 1958, but NONE were tested for environmental toxins:

It is clear to me that "blaming the bug" is still an epidemic of logical fallacy, as evident from the increase in cervical cancer among young people in the face of the reported efficacy of HPV vaccines in the reduction of HPV infections. Let's remember back in the early days of the poliomyelitis epidemic, scientists were still looking for the infectious agents they believed to cause scurvy and pellagra.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mary Kretzmann

Brilliant series of articles... I read them all in one day.


Oh darn, I put the next post on here by accident. I was trying to hurry since I had to get up and out to get to work. Betty this is your fault LOL-- you had just posted Polio explosion part 12 ; and I was getting ready to post on part 14.

But now that I noticed and read your post Betty--- a lot of lung cancer is still occurring in certain parts of the country - to none smokers. They found that it is radon - being released by rocks and can be problematic - health wise if the basements are not vented very well. Health departments about a decade ago were giving out free radon detecting kits to set up in your basement to see how much was there. Some parts of the United States has rocks heavy with radon - those that have a lot of granite, shale, Quartz.

And as far as tobacco goes -- according to my long ago environmental health text book - the mechanism for causing cancer was - tobacco smoke naturally has radon too, along with 4,000 other chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, benzene, radioactive polonium to name a few. And inhaling it through your lungs is the same as injecting it under your skin into your blood.



that is a very good find.

I like how it breaks it down into groups.
This study took place in 1936. This was right during the great depression - there was not a large middle class at that time was there?

And the poor was really poor.

At that time there was far not much of a recovery and so you are talking about a middle class what cold the middle class afford that the very poor could not?

That makes more sense to me. The too clean has never fully answered my curiosity; never - ever made sense to me as a young microbiology student in the 70s.

I don't think people really understand how poor - poor can be. So, let me give you an example of my own parents.

I have two parents still alive; Dad turned 92 yesterday They both still talk about their childhood, back in the 1930s. They were raised in the Appalachian Mountains. Neither received any public aid, there was no running water, plenty of out door toilets from pit dug out houses to just going in the woods to an out house over a dry season stream.

Neither got polio, nor did any of their brothers or sisters - but there was a cousin a little younger than them that lived up on a ridge. Their living conditions were just as poor - no running water, or septic system toilet either.

Sugar was in plenty supply -for cooking - even for them, but store bought candy was not. Dad and mom tells about how they always wanted something to be in their Christmas stocking,and if they were lucky it would be some hard candy, a doll, or a cap pistol and caps. Most often there was not even that. Dad always talks about the Christmas blues. The day after Christmas;he said he always got the blues, when he was little. Mom said that come from hoping for just a little something and getting most often nothing; the disappointment of the season was most often just too much.

One Tale that Dad always told was having the blues one late Christmas day. He had already eaten his few pieces of candy, and he was getting low on his caps for his pistol and he was trying to save them. Then up road his uncle on a white mule and brought them more Christmas candy! The blues lifted and it was just like a second Christmas.

You cannot dismiss just what the poor could not afford.

As far as syrup, I do believe that the 1930s was a time of cheap molasses - and I catch myself repeating a clich'e often to my surprise; so I must have heard it as a child; "Cheap as molasses" But -- Oh but - at that time many in this region was still making their own molasses from sorghum, or getting it off their neighbors cause they grew up liking it better. Still that was changing .

Do you see Eindeker - it may not be the middle class was so clean, but what could they afford.

OF course 1936 is not 1916. So who knows what would be going on in my region of the country at that time - I know of some that had polio - but I am unsure of date - the year that they came down with polio. That would be interesting to know.

Besides; polio was - a common circulating virus like a cold - that is easily caught in public schools from child to child, rich or poor.

The middle class might just have had enough money to get hold of something more regularly; that the poorer kids would have

Betty Bona

Not everyone who gets polio as a child will develop paralysis, and not everyone who became paralyzed as a child can trace it back to a polio infection (as is evident from all the non polio AFP cases). Maybe arsenic increases the chances of paralysis. We also know that DDT may increase the chances of paralysis like arsenic does. Similar to this scenario, not everyone who is exposed to asbestos develops mesothelioma, and not everyone who has mesothelioma can trace it to asbestos exposure. Exposure to asbestos has been so ubiquitous until recently that exposures could be postulated for most people with mesothelioma, but not all. This led one researcher, Carbone, to search for other causes of mesothelioma. It seems like he has now found some pavement type of additive used in a few northern states that apparently is associated with mesothelioma, but when I initially looked at his research five or ten years ago, he was connecting the SV40 virus (from the early polio vaccines) to mesothelioma. In addition to mesothelioma, SV40 is associated with Osteosarcoma, some cancerous brain tumors, and certain lymphomas. I was shocked when I researched this because lab researchers have been led to believe that SV40 is harmless. There are many cell lines that use the SV40 virus, and no one worries much about exposure to it because they all think it is nearly harmless. I was interested because I had a brother who passed away from osteosarcoma back in 1961, shortly after the polio vaccine was introduced in our area. Back then, we all assumed that there was a cancer gene that we all had (because osteosarcoma in children was so rare) and that all of us would die early from cancer. All these years later, none of us have died of cancer even though we have several smokers in our family. I have been looking for the cause of my brother's cancer all these years, and, before I ran into the SV40 idea, I had assumed it was his fluoride exposure from consuming a tube of toothpaste back then as fluoride is also associated with increased risk of osteosarcoma. Once I found the SV40 connection, I began to think that fluoride exposure is more associated with osteosarcoma and asbestos exposure is more associated with mesothelioma in the presence of the SV40 virus. I wonder if tobacco use is more associated with cancer in the presence of some virus we have not yet identified, and I wonder if some people already know of such a virus. I don't know why people don't see the connections. The Zika virus is more associated with micocephaly in the presence of pesticides, larvacides, or toxic vaccines. The viruses in the MMR vaccine are more associated with autism in the presence of mercury or aluminum or whatever other toxins our kids are exposed to. It may be a result of the negatives that happen to researchers when they choose not to look the other way. I was surprised to see that Carbone is still around, but maybe changing his focus (to toxins rather than the virus) has saved his career. Or maybe his ideas have just been neutralized by the powers that be. As I said, most researchers will tell you that SV40 has been proven to be nearly harmless. I just don't believe it.

Betty Bona

I spent months stripping the wallpaper off the plaster walls of an old 1906 home about 25 years ago. the hardest part to remove was the papery part under the wallpaper closest to the plaster. There may have been two layers of the green stuff. Maybe that's why my kids all showed arsenic in their toxic metals tests.

British Autism Mother

@ Birgit and Dan

Regarding the usages of arsenic. May I draw your attention to the recent publication of "A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie" by Kathryn Harkup, ISBN 978-1472911308, Bloomsbury Sigma 2015 (shortlisted for the Macavity Awards 2016). This is a 288 page account of Agatha Christie's use of poisons in her murder mysteries. New to me was the information that she was a pharmacist's dispenser (chemist) during the World Wars. have this book on 'look inside' so it might be worth a quick look.

Birgit Calhoun

Wallpaper as a toxic substance might not be totally unreasonable. For one thing paper is preserved with mercury and if the dye is green from maybe arsenic or other toxic chemicals there might be a synergistic effect. In one of the tables above Holyoke is mentioned as having a relatively large number of cases of polio. Holyoke is a city where paper factories were located. The first thing that comes to mind when I read wallpaper is the story "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The main character in this story is driven to insanity. It is interesting to note what happened in that story. I am not sure if that has anything to do with polio, but I am always looking for some connection or another.

angus files

They were spreading goodness knows what in the UK on the Tube and everywhere they could except the Parliament Buildings when that should have been their first port of call, themselves..



Silica like calcium is an additive used to reduce arsenic up take of the plants.
The bigger stalked - upright plants contain the most calcium and silica.

Wall paper - Queen Victoria - had an interesting story about her castle and a guest that stayed there and was late to meet with her because of the arsenic vapors coming out of the wallpaper and made him sick. It was about the time that England began to realize they were really killing themselves with the use of arsenic.

The article continues to be one big Wowing effect on me. All those cases in neighborhoods so close to the refineries, the docks where the cane entered by trains into the city -- the cities that received most sugar seem to equal the most outbreaks of polio.

As for a new polio virus from Rockefeller - that thought might hold us back. I am judging that from my own attitude for years - and years. The professors and authorities for years tried to explain to me why polio viruses that had been around for centuries -- all benign suddenly started causing - not a few cases but epidemics that scared the whole country. I really never bought it that it was hygiene - and babies no longer crawling around in filth. I thought to myself -- it had mutated; even though they have claimed for years it is the same viruses, that has always been around.

How many times has the human race had to face this and not realize that perhaps it is a poison first - that weakens the immune system that introduces a common every day - run of the mill virus into our systems. We now face the zika virus. What is worse - my kids -- my husband seems to not be able to fight off viruses like they should.

I remember the lady three or four blogs down, witnessing what happened to her daughter after a HPV vaccine. She developed RA and other signs of illness - her mother took her to a homeopath finally and she was improving until she got the flu - and then it was down hill again.

She still had a weakened immune system not ready yet - if ever again to face a common virus.

How many viruses are there out there? Unlimited of course -- and are they now going to have to give us a vaccine for each and every one of them - to reteach our immune system to look out for them?

I often wonder if the vaccines teach the immune system to fight off the actually microbe - or the aluminum, squalene, mercury, polysorbate 80, instead?

Dan Olmsted

Hi Nonymouse, i plan to discuss Paris green before long -- stay tuned. the link you provided is a fascinating story and as a pet owner it makes me sad to think of what happened based on a false understanding ... it would have been a lot better to throw out sugar containing foods and drinks than try to kill every pet in new york...the idea about the rockefeller institute and an escaping mutant virus is interesting. i got in touch with the author who proposed that but didn't hear from him. the problem with a theory like that is there are two dots -- a virus at the rockefeller institute, and a polio outbreak in the same city. but there is nothing connecting them. it's an interesting speculation but would need a lot more evidence and effort to rise to the top of the list. there had been a sizable outbreak in new york in 1907, as well as others around the world, that would not be explained by a virus escaping in 1916 in new york. the 1916 outbreak was a huge spike, but it's not as if there had been no cases before. there was a gradually rising set of peaks and valleys that portended something even bigger. -- dan


Also, has this theory (of polio in 1916) been looked at?


Forgot to say, Scheele's green, the dye which was used for coloring wallpapers and fabrics of various kinds. A more scientific description of it is arsenite of copper. There was also a dye known as Paris green, but it may have been a different substance.


Textiles and arsenic? How about starting with wallpaper.

There are quite a few stories, no telling what might be the earliest. Try this one, it's very readable:

"During the 19th century there had been a number of cases of arsenic poisoning that had rather puzzled everyone. Some people just became sick, but others laid low with a lesser malady became sicker still, and died.

"Arsenic was found, using the Marsh Test, foul play was sometimes suspected, and relatives accused. But in many cases it just didn't seem possible that the person had been deliberately poisoned. Until in 1893 an Italian Biochemist called Gosio worked out what was happening.

"Scheele's Green was a colouring pigment that had been used in fabrics and wallpapers from around 1770 . . . "

Dan Olmsted

Hi Sheila, there are a lot of very helpful observations here. i do plan to get into some of what you talk about so i will be in touch. i've wondered if textiles could have remnants of arsenic from cotton growing (arsenic was a boll weevil killer). also tobacco is treated with arsenic i believe.

i think there were some early outbreaks in salem, va, and also what was described as "hills of virginia." i'll add them to the list. thank you! an.

Sheila G

Hi, Dan,
I'm really enjoying the series. I noticed Holyoke, MA, in that list. I went to school out in the Pioneer Valley and thought I would share several recollections that might bolster the arsenic-virus theory you are laying out. Holyoke, cradled in the arms of the Connecticut River, was the first planned industrial community in the US. Hepped up on hydropower it became home to paper mills, shoe and textile factories, and was surrounded by tobacco farms. It is easy to imagine a toxic stew of chemical runoff to rival the best of 'em (Charleston, WV, I'm lookin' at you), and with the dams preventing sediment from washing down to the ocean I imagine those toxic compounds could easily accumulate. The housing for workers was close by the mills, dams, and canals. Something else that occurs to me is to be curious about the relationship of tobacco and other plants that contain or concentrate a lot of silica, like the grass family, which includes sugar, grains like rice, bamboo, etc., to arsenic. Recently arsenic contaminated rice has been in the headlines. Bamboo is of course renown for its tensile strength, which rivals steel, due in part to its rich silica content. There are concerns about arsenic contamination in edible bamboo products. I now reside in southwest VA, and the fields of tobacco in northern NC are something to behold. The tobacco plant loves the clay rich/silica rich soils there, and the vision of those big, hunky plants glistening in the sunlight gave rise to such hybrid names as Silver Leaf and Bright Leaf. So here we have another industrially contaminated water source, with working class folks living, working, fishing, and playing in it. Then Polio shows up. I think your puzzle is coming together!


Just to add - Suzanne Humphries' slides on polio:

Dan Olmsted


i think the stables were just an assumption made by the public health people. stables were inherently "dirty" and attracted flies and i presume rats, and the "experts" were still uncertain how it was spread. there were some epidemics in which animals including horses were affected, which is actually a pretty good clue that something besides the virus was at work. polio doesn't affect lower mammals, so it was probably the arsenic from lead arsenate in orchards where horses grazed, etcetera. animals didn't die in the new york epidemic. you can see the suspicion of a couple of flies in the case where four of the five children got polio. it was reasonable to suspect flies back then (and it's theoretically possible that a minuscule number of cases were transmitted that way), but the focus on flies, stables, rats etcetera made them overlook clues like the fact that all five of those children were basically exposed to nothing but sugar!

kurt sipolski

Thanks, as a polio survivor this was quite interesting.


forgive me if you have addressed this in the comments already, Dan, but have you addressed the stables? I know you can feed horses sugar cubes, but I would assume regular working class people would not have done that often. Obviously there is a gut transmission, but how would the horses have gotten it? Can animals get polio?

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