WYTHEVILLE, Virginia (AOA) -- It was the seventh inning stretch of a home game for the Wytheville Statesmen, the Class D League team beloved by this baseball-obsessed Southwestern Virginia town. The date was June 30, 1950.
The announcer told the crowd that Johnny Seccafico, infant son of second baseman Jim Seccafico, had been rushed to the hospital in Roanoke, seriously ill. (How serious can be measured in miles away: 78.) The fans passed a Statesmen hat and chipped in $227, a generous gesture worth ten times as much in today's dollars. Jim, who looks heartbreakingly young in this photo, was not in the game that night. He never played again.
Johnny had polio, the first case in town that summer, and his father instantly dropped the itinerant life of a D Leaguer to help care for him; Johnny lived. He never walked again.
Before it was over that summer, Wytheville – pronounced WITH-ville, pop. 5,500 – and Wythe County suffered an outbreak of poliomyelitis that struck nearly 200, killing 17, almost all of them children. Per capita, Wytheville remains the worst polio outbreak anywhere, ever.
Why? That was the question on my mind last month when I stopped off for a day in this town in the Blue Ridge just off Interstate 81, on my way back from a camping trip in North Carolina. I’ve learned over the years that the most extreme example of a phenomenon – the first cases of autism, for example, or the worst cases of Freud’s hysteria, or the fatal version of syphilis – can be the most revealing. It’s what Mark Blaxill and I have been doing for a decade now. (Another thing I've learned is to try to visit places I'm writing about -- walking the territory, as one editor put it to me.)
In the case of polio, we concluded a few years back that outbreaks were not as simple as they seemed: a toxic co-factor is required to turn harmless poliovirus infections into poliomyelitis, the illness that attacks the anterior horn cells at the top of the spine and causes paralysis and death. The earliest co-factor, we proposed, was the pesticide lead arsenate; its invention in 1892 ushered in the Age of Polio. Arsenic can weaken the immune system and cause permeability in the GI tract and, we suspect, allow the virus to escape into the nerves and cause paraIysis. Lead, too, is infamous for causing both mental and physical handicaps including paralysis. A handful of medical mavericks have long argued so-called"polio" is just lead arsenate or DDT poisoning in disguise. Our equation is new: virus + toxin = poliomyelitis.
Following our “worst and first” approach to historical epidemiology, I recently wrote about the first big regional epidemic in the United States, which started in Brooklyn in 1916. I made a case that the outbreak was triggered by the first use of arsenic as a weed killer in sugar cane fields; Brooklyn was the sugar refining capital of the world.
While polio may seem like old news, it’s not. Efforts to eradicate it have made a lot of progress but are still struggling in Africa and South Asia. Mark and I were the first to report recently that a strange new “polio-like illness,” identified in 2014, is back; the Washington Post published a long article in its print edition Friday. One of the victims in the Post report is a child from Chesterfield County, Virginia, which as the name suggests is a major tobacco-growing region. A lot of these new cases are occurring in agricultural areas –- pesticide country -- and the fact that the Chesterfield case is from Virginia, where I live, feels awfully close to home. It reminded me of my Wytheville visit.
When I drove into Wytheville last month I was intrigued to learn that Edith Boling, Woodrow Wilson’s wife, was born in a home on Main Street; after her husband’s stroke she wielded more power in the White House than any woman until, possibly, next year. An eatery occupies part of the place she grew up as one of 11 children. I sat at the counter and had sweet tea and a tasty hot dog that, beneath the fixins’, was bright red. I almost had another but decided to get going.
I love reporting in small towns, both for the local flavor and because I come from one. There is usually no security to get through, no deputy assistant secretary in charge of thwarting the media, fewer people burned by previous encounters with reporters, and fewer opportunities to get lost. I spent time at the library – where I always start – as well as the town hall, the community college, a couple of shops whose owners gave me useful background, and finally a spring in the woods outside town. Getting lost a couple of times on the alleged "loop trail" did not dilute the charm.
At the college, I looked through letters Wytheville’s mayor, William Arthur, received during that terrible summer of 1950. I stopped on this one, poorly written but pretty interesting: “I read in papers your town and county having polo or infantil parlyses,” it began. “Also same county and town are in agriculture district. Arsenic of lead spray or lead on vegetables or fruit will get into water in all shapes and manner.” The writer, Thomas Andrew Lyons of South Norwalk, Connecticut, offered a simple test. “The presence of lead in water may be easily demonstrated. Sulpheretted hydrogen [can be put] through a deep column of the acidified water and noticing whether the liquid becomes tinged of a brown color owing to the formation of lead sulphide.
"Water will dissolve lead but will not lose its poisonous effect. Taking in minute quantities it will hold on to tissues of persons causing paralysis especially of arms and of younger persons -- what I mean that enough of it could get back together and be drank -- so as to cause said disease at once."
Lead arsenate, of course, fit our theory exactly. But given the mountainous setting of Wytheville, why would a pesticide create such an outsize epidemic now, in this place, even as it quickly declined in favor of that postwar wonder worker DDT? It was plausible but didn't really jump out at me in bright red.
I scrolled through the Southwest Virginia Enterprise on microfilm starting early in the plague year. It made sense to me that Johnny Seccafico would have been the first to get polio. I imagined his father traveling from small town to small town in Virginia, mingling with crowds and kids and picking up the virus; maybe the family went with him to a nearby game and Johnny caught it directly. (In a small moment of synchronicity, I read that Jim Seccafico was from Brooklyn, the site of my first deep dive into epidemics.)
But what caused the outbreak to spread with such intensity through Wytheville and surroundings? The CDC was called in but found nothing unique or out of the ordinary. Still, the town fathers sprayed a fog of DDT through the town. ("Gigantic spraying program is inaugurated," the paper reported July 25, well after the epidemic began. It didn't seem to have an effect.)
As I zipped through those summer days, feeling the poignancy of ordinary life in the light of what was to come, my eye landed on a front-page piece from June 23, just days before the epidemic announced itself. The article, below, took note that the town swimming pool was still not full. (What are tax dollars for if not to drop the kids off at the municipal pool all day?) The Town manager explained: “For the past several weeks, the maximum amount available from the [present] source has been delivered to the Town; pumping has been on a 24-hour basis and pumping has not ceased for any reason. The difficulty lies in the fact that the one-half million gallons per day which is being delivered is not sufficient to meet the needs of the town during drier hot periods.
“There has been some delay in filling the swimming pool as doing so would have lowered the water in the reservoir below a safe level [for fire protection and so on]. The cooler weather this week has reduced the water consumption in the town to some degree and it is believed the pool can be completely filled by Friday or Saturday this week.” Before long, it added, a new water source currently being connected would solve the problem permanently.
This scenario was starting to sound familiar. Poliomyelitis 0utbreaks were often observed to occur along with droughts. Rivers ran low. And swimming pools were prime suspects in those peak polio years – lots of older baby boomers remember pools closing. City fathers took no chances. The Wytheville pool, barely open, closed by July 11. (The pool was segregated, but one African-American child was diagnosed with polio right after swimming in a Marine landing craft filled with water that served as an alternative.) Stevan Jackson, author of the best history of the epidemic, A Summer Without Children, noted the Wytheville water supply had been doused with so much chlorine that tap water "reeked" of it.
“One of the first rumors was that the water supply might somehow be contaminated,” Jackson wrote. “But that didn’t exactly jibe with the facts because people in the county were not using town water, so that wouldn’t have been an explanation.” I'm always interested in what real people -- not the experts -- say, and I find that rumor fascinating. Where did it come from? Because what if it was the water, but the water was a vector for the toxin rather than the virus? That could explain a lot.
But the question remained: In that scenario, what was the toxin? As I was about to head out of town I glanced up at the flea-market banner across Main Street. What I saw made me get out of my car and keep going.
To be continued.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.