'The anti-vaxxers want us to live in a world of diseases.'

A polio patient from the 1950s – wearing an iron lung


I recently spent a few weeks on crutches because of a broken ankle, and I had a vaccination against pneumonia today. These reminded me of my earliest memory of being vaccinated.

Shortly after my twelfth birthday I was rushed to hospital to have my appendix removed. Back in those days it wasn’t the simple keyhole job it is today so I had to spend a few days in the hospital to recuperate.

Another thing about the olden days was that there was no gender separation, and one of the other patients in the children’s ward at Hornsby Hospital was a girl about ten or eleven years old.

I can still remember what she looked like.

She had a round face with very pink cheeks. Her hair was red, and even though it was cut short you could see that it had a curl in it. I can only remember her face and hair and not what the rest of her looked like because the rest of her was enclosed in a steel box. The steel box was an iron lung, and it was doing her breathing for her because she had been infected with polio.

A screenshot from “The Sessions” a 2012 film based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of polio.

She was quite cheerful, which must have been difficult. I don’t know what happened to her later and she may very well have been one of the lucky ones who through intensive rehabilitation was eventually able to survive outside the box, but at the time the general expectation was that once someone went into an iron lung they spent the rest of their life there.

Meanwhile my best friend in primary school was one of the lucky ones. He walked with a limp but he didn’t need the leg callipers that were on at least one child in every primary school class.

I still remember how we had to make allowances in playground games for the kids who weren’t quite as mobile as the rest of us. I also remember that an entire age cohort missed out on swimming lessons because of a fear that public swimming pools were places where polio could spread easily.


These were frightening times.

A couple of years before my appendix decided that it needed removing the vaccinators arrived at my school. All the kids who hadn’t shown any signs of contracting polio (and even those who had) lined up for the shots. A nurse painted our arms with iodine and another one injected us from a stainless steel syringe. Many children cried, both before and after the injection. Some might even have fainted afterwards.

Polio patients.

Nobody objected. There were no exceptions, there were no conscientious objections. There was a universal feeling that this was something that had to be done to protect children from an incurable disease that came on suddenly and left death and disability behind.

Most people today have never seen a case of polio, and this includes doctors. That is why we have the luxury today of arguing about the value and safety of vaccines. Yes, there were people who objected to the polio vaccine when it was first introduced but they were treated with the ridicule they deserved, just as anti-vaccinators should be treated today.

Anti-vaccination zealouts will try to convince you that polio was never eradicated by vaccination. Instead it was renamed. Oh really?  If that were true, where are the leg callipers and iron lungs?  I’ve seen the world the anti-vaccination fanatics want our children to live in and I don’t want to go back there. All I need do is remember a little red-headed girl in hospital who could still smile at a boy who, unlike her, could run, breathe and play games. Like any child should be able to do.

Peter Bowditch writes for several skeptical and scientific publications and runs the web site at In real life he is married with two daughters and pays the bills by being an IT consultant and TAFE teacher.