Rosemount Area Historical Society member John Loch has a sneaking suspicion many people younger than him have no idea what exactly polio is, much less what an impact it had on people's lives in the 1940s.
Curious community members will have the opportunity to learn all about the disease and its effect on their town when the Rosemount Historical Society presents Rosemount's Polio Hospital from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10 at the Robert Trail Library.
Loch will provide guests with a brief history of the polio epidemic and the establishment of a polio hospital at the site of the former Gopher Ordnance Works in Rosemount.
His presentation, which will include about twenty photographs, will begin with a discussion of polio in general.
"Younger people may not know much about polio, but people my age lived through it," he said. Loch himself had been hospitalized with what his parents were afraid might be polio when he was only four or five. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw an explosion of polio victims, and when the adjunct army hospital at Fort Snelling was closed in 1946 due to the end of WWII, there was a sudden need for another hospital to house polio victims.
In a fortunate coincidence, the end of the war had also shut down the Gopher Ordnance Works, once intended to be the largest powder plant in the United States, and in December of 1946, the University of Minnesota entered into agreement to purchase the land.
"And lo and behold, there was a hospital on the grounds that wasn't being used for anything," Loch said.
Rosemount's polio hospital was only in operation from January of 1947 to June of 1948, but in that short time, it saw 269 patients from all over Minnesota and other parts of the country. It even saw cowboy singer and television star Gene Autry, not as a patient, but as a visitor.
Guests of Loch's presentation will discover who Autry came to visit, as well as learn the role the Red Cross Gray Ladies played in helping polio victims and other ways the community pitched in.
Loch's presentation also will address Australian nurse Sister Kenny, who brought her controversial theory on how to treat polio to Minnesota.
"Many physicians said it wouldn't work," Loch said. "She didn't necessarily make a lot of friends."
Loch said the American medical director at the time said he saw Kenny as "an ignorant quack seeking money for her own gain" and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis ceased funding her because she was "a determined and outspoken woman who irritated them."
But doctors at the University of Minnesota liked what she was saying enough to invite her to Minnesota, and the tides turned when widespread use of her methods led incidents of residual paralysis to drop from 85 to 15 percent. By 1952, the Gallup Poll determined Sister Kenny to be the most admirable woman in the United States.
With Sister Kenny residing in Minneapolis and the polio hospital operating in Rosemount, Loch said Minnesota was considered a hotbed on the edge of development. The hospital building, once located just east of Dakota County Technical College, was torn down several years ago, and the Flint Hills recreation complex now sits on the site.