Posted by: coastlinesproject | June 23, 2015

Plum Island; Sea Haven Polio Camp.

Chapter 30

The Sea Haven Polio Camp




Polio has been around at least as long as Plum Island has been in existence. A stele from Egypt’s 18th dynasty depicts a man with a walking stick and atrophied leg swigging down his polio medication, and everybody remembers the PBS tyrant I Claudius limping across their TV screens.


However, the virus that causes poliomyelitis only existed as a fairly rare endemic pathogen until the 1900’s when it started to proliferate into widespread clusters in Europe and America. The outbreaks usually started first in cities during the summers so that families who could afford it, flocked to mountain and seaside resorts like Plum Island.


But the most serious epidemics occurred during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During those years the scourge killed over half a million people and crippled many, many more. Even our President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not spared. He died from complications of polio while swimming in the warm waters of a therapeutic pool in Hot Springs, Georgia.


One of the North Shore kids who contracted polio was Daniel Harrington of Haverhill, Massachusetts. He recovered and went on to become the much beloved head of the school system but he always remembered the feeling of being ostracized as a kid because of his disabilities. In later life he decided to establish a free camp for kids who were being excluded from going to regular summer camps.


So, in 1946 he obtained a ten-year lease on the Knobbs Beach Coast Guard Station and started building a large blue swimming pool overlooking the ocean. The pool became the heart of the Sea Haven experience. Kids from all over the North Shore lived in Spartan camps tucked into the dunes and spent most of their days taking therapeutic soaks and playing in the saltwater pool.


The pool was the one place where kids could enjoy a semblance of the mobility that other children took for granted. They would spend long hot summer days forming friendships with other children similarly afflicted with the crippling disease.


In the evenings the campers would gather around the piano in their wheel chairs and belt out their favorite old songs as Doc Harrington accompanied them on the camp’s well worn piano. One former camper remembers her summers at the camp as among the happiest of her childhood and former counselor credits the Sea Haven pool as being the place where she first fell in love with the man she is still married to.


Things were not so copacetic in the world at large, however. When Jonas Salk introduced the Salk vaccine in 1955, there had been 39,000 cases of polio in the United States, by 1956 it had plummeted to 15,000 cases, then by 1961 there were just over a thousand. But the vaccine’s great success did not stop the American Chiropractic Institute from mounting a no-holds barred fight against any kind of immunization.


The Institute believed that all diseases were caused by subluxations of the spine and that “chiropractic adjustments should be given to the entire spine the first three days of acute polio infection, ” and they reported complete recovery in 30% of their cases. But they would not allow scientists to verify   their results.


They also concocted a wide-ranging battle plan to argue against immunization. It included 6 major tactics:


One — Spread doubt about the science behind immunization. For instance they argued that diseases have natural cycles so the apparent success of immunization was just because polio had died out on its own.


Two — Question the motives and integrity of immunization specialists. To do this they argued that there was a nefarious conspiracy between scientists and pharmaceutical companies to make a huge amount of money eradicating polio. If so, who wouldn’t be for it?


Three – Magnify disagreements about technical issues like the number of doses to give and whether booster shots were necessary, into a broad-based repudiation of immunization itself.


Four—Exaggerate the potential harm from vaccines, like today’s anti-vaxxers who claim that vaccines cause autism, a bogus theory that has been proved wrong by numerous scientists in multiple studies.


Five – Appeal to personal freedom. To do this they argued that compulsory vaccination was another conspiracy, this one against Americans basic freedom of choice. The Supreme Court rejected this argument on the grounds that individuals’ beliefs are fine as long as they don’t subordinate the safety of the entire community.



Six – When the results started coming in showing that the vaccine had worked, the early chiropractors used their trump card, claiming that Chiropractic methods were a matter of faith and thus not open to scientific inquiry.


The case has particular resonance because many of today’s climate deniers have stuck to the same game plan.


One – They blame global warming on natural cycles.


Two – They argue that scientists and environmentalists are in cahoots to get funding for more research.


Three – They magnify reasonable disagreements among scientists about how much and how quickly the sea will rise, in order to dispute that the climate is changing at all.


Four – They argue that slowing global warming will hurt the economy and cost people their jobs. In fact the opposite is true.


Five – They argue that homeowners have the right to protect their private property even when it subordinates the safety of the public trying to swim on the same public beach.


Six – They argue that things like building seawalls and repairing jetties has stopped erosion on places like Plum Island. When in fact houses are teetering on the edge and things and inconvenient things like wooly mammoths keep popping out of the dunes.


But I guess the climate deniers have it right. Storms are not getting more frequent. The Gulf Stream, just 200 miles to our east is not several degrees warmer than it was only twenty years ago, and it is not accelerating storms bulging out of the polar vortex like an old man’s giant hernia. If the climate deniers haven’t fooled the public at least they have fooled themselves.




William Sargent’s most recent book, Islands in the Storm, is about Plum Island, before during and after Hurricane Sandy.

It is available in local bookstores and through and at







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: