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Interior black and white photo of a late middle-aged man in white coat administering injection to the upper arm of a boy, about five.
Doctor vaccinating a child for polio in a mobile clinic as part of an anti-polio campaign in Western Australia, 1956

Polio was among the most frightening diseases to affect Australians during the early 20th century.

The incurable and unpredictable viral disease mostly affected children and could cause permanent paralysis, even death. It sometimes reached epidemic proportions across the world.

Millions of doses of vaccine were distributed to Australians during robust national public health campaigns that began in 1956.

Routine immunisation over the following decades helped control the disease. Australia has been polio-free since 2000.

The Central Queensland Herald, June 1956, on the introduction of the first polio vaccination campaign:

Within a few weeks from now thousands of our children will be immunised against the dread scourge of polio. It is a wonderful thing to think that if Salk vaccine does all that is claimed for it, Queensland will have no more polio epidemics.

Parents of immunised children will have a great load of fear lifted from them. The sight of scores of little polio victims in a convalescent or training home is a sight that one can never forget.

A black and white photo of a female nurse assisting a person inside a lung machine.
Iron lung respirator, Cancer Institute, Melbourne

Nita Lawes, an 11-year-old Tasmanian schoolgirl who contracted polio during an outbreak in 1937:

The news items every morning in the papers were reporting about children getting sick with poliomyelitis. Very few people had ever heard of it, this crippling disease which paralysed your limbs and affected the lungs in many cases.

About a week after the schools closed, I didn’t feel very well. Even though I felt so ill it never entered my mind that I had polio.

Polio treatment and aids in Australia

Several Australians responded to the polio crisis by developing innovative aids and treatments.

A quilted mural with a design of a rainbow, and figures with crutches and various text. At the top the text reads “LECTURER” and “AUTHOR”. Other text includes “THEY SHALL WALK”, “TOWNSVILLE POLIO CLINIC” and “KENNY POLIO INSTITUTE”. - click to view larger image
Quilt celebrating Sister Elizabeth Kenny’s achievements, made by CWA members, 1988

During the first decade of the 20th century, orthopaedic surgeon Colin MacKenzie designed shoulder splints for young polio patients using knowledge gained from specimens of koala musculature.

Large American-designed artificial respirators – known as ‘iron lungs’ – were built to accommodate those who were unable to breathe for themselves. As demand increased, South Australian Thomas Both designed a cheaper portable respirator made of laminated wood in 1937–38.

By the 1930s the most common treatment, as advocated by doctor and scientist Jean MacNamara, was to immobilise affected limbs using casts, braces, callipers and splints.

In 1932 Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny began a new method of treatment using warm compresses and massage, in what is now considered the forerunner of modern physiotherapy.

Both at home and in institutions, many survivors undertook months or years of painful treatments and rehabilitation to restore movement to nerve-damaged limbs.

Little formal support was available to parents of children with reduced mobility. Many required ongoing support from local medical services and used mobility aids.

Portrait of a serious-looking man of about 40 in a suit, with a receding hairline, wearing glasses. - click to view larger image
Jonas Salk

Development of polio vaccine

It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that two Americans, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, separately developed effective vaccines. In 1955 Salk and his research team at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, developed the first injectable polio vaccine, known as inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV).

Dr Percival Bazeley, Director of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Australia was sent to America to work with Salk in 1952 and returned to Melbourne in 1955 to begin mass production of IPV.

Several Australian research institutions used children in institutions during unethical vaccine trials prior to its widespread release.

The first Salk vaccines were distributed to adults and children across Australia from July 1956. With the help of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, medical staff set up thousands of temporary clinics in regional and remote areas. More than 25 million doses of the vaccine were produced by CSL by 1966.

Coloured photograph of a medical practitioner injecting a needle into a woman’s arm.
Administering polio vaccine at Forrest River Mission, 1958–59

As vaccinations were administered, polio notification rates dropped significantly. However, ‘herd immunity’ – where the vaccination of a significant portion of a population provides protection for vulnerable individuals – took longer to establish. This contributed to another outbreak of polio in Australia in 1961 and 1962.

IPV was followed in 1961 by oral polio vaccine (OPV) developed by Dr Albert Sabin at the University of Cincinnati. The OPV was first used in Australia in 1966. Individual missions and schools often collated information on the distribution of vaccines, but the precise number of First Nations community members who received vaccines is unknown.

A poster featuring a colour photographic image of AFL footballer Graham Farmer kicking into the air. His name is written in the bottom left hand corner of the poster and is framed by the outline of a football. - click to view larger image
AFL player Graham 'Polly' Farmer, 1967, had polio in his teens

Polio eradication

By the 1970s, routine immunisation introduced worldwide as part of national immunisation programs, helped to control polio in many developed countries.

But during the early 1980s, polio remained prevalent in 125 countries. Australian Clem Renouf, then President of Rotary International, spearheaded the 1988 Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which resulted in the reduction of polio cases by 99 per cent.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries, but in the early decades of the 21st century, it remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. High immunisation levels remain crucial even in countries where polio has already been eliminated.

In October 2000 the World Health Organization declared the Western Pacific region, which includes Australia, polio-free. In 2022 there were, however, an estimated 400,000 polio survivors in Australia, many who still live with the long-term effects of the disease.

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Hot-air steriliserThe absolute necessity for sterilising medical and surgical instruments in the laboratory to prevent the spread of infectious made the hot-air sterilisers, or hot-air ovens, important tools. A wide range of sterilisers were available during the early twentieth century as awareness of the importance of sterilisation increased. A...


Wade Alexander, Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Maverick Heroine of the Polio Treatment Controversy, Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, Queensland, 2003.

Bill Bradley, Life after Polio: ... And I'm Still Stirring, self-published, Sydney, New South Wales, 2019.

Nita Lawes-Gilvear, Living with Polio: The Laughter and the Tears, self-published, Launceston, Tasmania, 1988.

David Piers Thomas, Reading Doctors' Writing: Race, Politics and Power in Indigenous Health Research, 1870–1969, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Acton, ACT, 2004.

Updated: 5 February 2024
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