Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio
Monash University Publishing, $39.95 pb, 262 pp, 9781922235848
Imagine a child falling ill. Her fever worsens. Becoming paralysed, she screams in pain. Rushed to hospital, she is separated from her family for months. She undergoes agonising treatments: strapped in splints, encased in plaster, weeping as her limbs are stretched on rack-like machines. She may be encased in an 'iron lung' to breathe, like a coffin with her head poking out. She yearns to return home. When she does, steel rods are bolted onto her legs. Shunned as a 'cripple', she takes for granted that she will never work, never marry.
That story was repeated tens of thousands of times in the twentieth century as polio epidemics swept across Australia and the rest of the world. The horror they inspired was amplified by the fact that medical authorities had little idea what caused polio, how it spread, or how to treat it effectively. How do you respond when faced with such a terrifying situation? This was the existential dilemma faced by characters in Camus's novel The Plague (1947). How did Australia react when faced with a similar but real-life plague, poliomyelitis?