IDPH 125th


The first recorded epidemic of poliomyelitis (polio) began in 1916; Illinois reported 1,000 cases. The following year there were 853 cases and 236 deaths. However, the actual number of those afflicted by the disease was probably considerably higher since it is estimated that only 30 percent of cases were reported.

Paralytic polio is a viral disease that strikes children and adults and can cripple and kill. It is spread by contact with the feces of an infected person. Symptoms can include sudden fever, sore throat, headache, muscle weakness and pain.

In response to the 1916 outbreak, the State Board of Health established clinics in various parts of the state. Staff traveled to each clinic and gave what aid they could to those paralyzed by the disease.

A reoccurrence of the epidemic in 1917 led to the creation of the Division of Child Hygiene and Public Health Nursing. The division’s purpose was to combat high mortality among children by promoting child health services in various communities throughout the state and by establishing infant welfare stations and visiting nurse services. The division also investigated orphanages, homes and hospitals for children; assisted in the management of baby health conferences and programs; and supervised the practice of midwives.

Public concern about polio, which far outran that about such serious and widespread diseases as pneumonia or syphilis, was generated more by the terrible crippling after-effects in many cases than by the number of cases.

Demands on staff to work with disabled children increased rather than slowed after the epidemic subsided, becoming a major part of the division’s workload until Feb. 1, 1924, when these responsibilities were taken over by the Illinois Crippled Children’s Society, a volunteer organization.

In the wake of the 1916-17 epidemic, polio continued to plague the people of Illinois with gradually increasing intensity and prevalence. The average annual number of cases between 1918 and 1940 was 316, with a peak of 779 cases in 1937. However, from 1940 to 1956, the average annual number of cases increased more than five-fold – to 1,631; in 1952, the state recorded 4,001 cases.

Cases began to decline after the Salk vaccine became available in 1955, dropping to 307 in 1957 and continuing to decline over the following years. There has not been a reported case of polio in Illinois since 1983.

... Years Ago in Public Health

A Timeline of the Illinois Department of Public Health

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