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The "Miracle" of Hickory: Mass Media and the "Miracle"

By Marvin L. Elliott (2007)

About the article

A half century has passed since a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk made polio a disease of historians. While it still may be found in developing nations, few people in the United States remember what was once one of the country's most feared diseases. "Infant paralysis" affected mostly children, who seemed perfectly healthy one day, paralyzed the next. Outbreaks could devastate an area, spreading the virus and fear. This research examines the history of one of those outbreaks, in North Carolina, rapid response of a community, and how the press was involved: the "Miracle of Hickory." This research was completed as part of COMM 636, History of the Mass Media, on line course.

About the Author

Marvin L. Elliott has lived in Hickory, North Carolina, since 1998. Elliott holds a B.A. in Bible from Milligan College in Tennessee; an M.A. in Christian Leadership from Kentucky Christian University; and has done additional graduate studies in Communication from North Dakota State University. He currently serves as an adjunct instructor in Religion and Communication at Catawba Valley Community College, Hickory, North Carolina.



If the people of western North Carolina desired a miracle in 1944, the shores of Lake Hickory would likely have been far from their minds. With World War II raging on in Europe as well as in the Pacific theater (Eller, 1997), the front page of every edition of the newspaper featured reports from the front lines, and little else. A prayer for a miracle would certainly have been for a quick defeat of the German forces.

But even as the war in Europe continued to claim the lives of young men from western North Carolina in significant numbers, a new battle--a different kind of war--lay ahead on the home front. Infantile paralysis, or polio, was not a new enemy, but had reared its ugly head time after time, summer after summer, all across the United States. A major outbreak had ravaged Chicago the previous summer (Eller, 1997). The people of the small town of Hickory, located in Catawba County, North Carolina, knew little about the disease except that it had crippled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("The great polio epidemic," 1992). But that was to change. As the calendar moved toward the first days of summer, it was evident that polio would be an unwelcome visitor in Hickory and throughout western North Carolina during the summer of 1944.

As parents fled the mountains and northern foothills searching for medical care for their stricken children, they headed toward Charlotte Memorial Hospital and the polio ward of that large institution. The hospital was quickly overwhelmed, though, and closed its doors to new patients.   Many of the parents traveling south out of the mountains made it no further than Hickory, but, in early June 1944, there was no facility for polio treatment there--yet (National Foundation, 1945).

It was out of necessity, generosity, and compassion that "The Miracle of Hickory" was born. The "miracle," the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital, was constructed in less than three days. The people of Hickory reacted with compassion and received not only local patients, but polio victims from the entire region. Although some funds were quickly received from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, as the March of Dimes organization was known until 1979 (March of Dimes, n.d.), it was an outpouring of support from the local community that made the "miracle" possible.   For nine months, regardless of race, hometown, or ability to pay, the hospital received hundreds of young people whose lives were disrupted by a random stalker (Bridges, 1975a; LaBarr, 1945; "The Miracle of Hickory, 1965; National Foundation, 1945).

What caused the people of Hickory to react with compassion and concern when confronted with the rapidly-spreading disease? What caused the city to willingly take on the stigma of being known as "Polio City"? (Bridges, 1975a) The actions of local leaders--and media coverage of those leaders--"set the bar high," and became the lofty challenge to which the local community responded quickly and compassionately.

This paper is an exploration of the coverage of "The Miracle of Hickory" through the pages of the Hickory Daily Record and other primary source material. There have been other major projects relating the story of the "miracle" in the past--a Life magazine article ("Infantile paralysis," 1945) and an issue of Coronet magazine (Hughes, 1945), both in 1945; a half-hour video written, produced, directed, and narrated by a fellow instructor at Catawba Valley Community College in 1997 (Eller, 1997); and a brief book published in 1998, primarily detailing the story from the accounts of those gathered for a 50 th reunion of patients and staff of the hospital (Sink, 1998). In addition, various newspaper articles, usually occasioned by the passing of some significant anniversary of the polio epidemic, have recounted the story of the "miracle."

This work seeks to add to the body of knowledge of this significant local event by exploring the motivation behind the action taken by the people of Hickory and the factors that moved area residents to respond.   In particular, it examines the role of the media in shaping the community's response.

This is a portion of the story behind "The Miracle of Hickory."

Polio Arrives

In 1944, Hickory was a quiet town of 15,000 people in the North Carolina foothills, 55 miles north of Charlotte and 80 miles east of Asheville.   The city was--and still is--located on the banks of Lake Hickory, where the primary industries in the 1940s were hosiery, furniture, and textiles (National Foundation, 1945).   The city prided itself as North Carolina's "best balanced city" (Hughes, 1945), and the people of Hickory enjoyed a peaceful existence, although somewhat distracted by the harsh realities of World War II.

The announcement of polio's arrival in Hickory was made in less than three column inches of space near the bottom of page one in the Hickory Daily Record on June 7, 1944. According to a report by Frances Allen, the public health nurse for Catawba county, Linda Kiser, a 17-month-old girl from Hickory, was hospitalized at Charlotte Memorial Hospital with a tentative diagnosis of polio ("Possible polio case," 1944).   The child received the revolutionary "Kenny" treatment, which treated polio victims with hot compresses, hot baths, and flexibility exercises for affected limbs, rather than the rival treatment that consisted of immobilization by use of splints and casts (Zubar, 1997). The little girl's case had been diagnosed a few days prior by a local physician in Hickory ("Possible polio case," 1944).

The following day, the Record reported that Wanda Sue Scronce, a four-year-old girl from Hildebran, just outside Hickory, was also hospitalized in Charlotte and receiving the Kenny treatment. The second child had been delivered to Charlotte Memorial by the public health nurse, who also reported that Linda Kiser was in satisfactory condition upon her visit to Charlotte ("2 in this area," 1944).

Cases three and four were announced in the pages of the Hickory Daily Record on June 10 and 12, respectively. The third case was an older child, 12-year-old Jack Williams from Granite Falls, another small community just outside Hickory ("Third polio case," 1944).   On the opposite side of Hickory, in Conover, Franklin Little, age 10, became the fourth admission to the Charlotte hospital with a tentative diagnosis of polio ("Conover boy," 1944).   Less than a week had passed, and four children--from four different communities in the Hickory area--were hospitalized in Charlotte.

June 14 brought a report on the front page of the Hickory Daily Record --but still near the bottom of the front page, with a continuation inside--of another polio case in Hickory, and a total of 10 cases in the three-county area, including Catawba, Burke, and Caldwell counties. Dr. H. C. Whims, county public health physician in the Catawba county seat of Newton, issued a statement saying, "Community hysteria does not help at all," and pleaded with residents to not become "panic stricken." Dr. Whims pointed out that "epidemic rules" may be looming in the future for Burke and Caldwell counties, since there were larger numbers of polio cases in those counties, but not for Catawba county.   The county physician went on to discuss typical symptoms of infantile paralysis in children that, unfortunately, mirror the symptoms of a great many illnesses--vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, fever, and colds. The Charlotte hospital reported to the Hickory newspaper a total of 14 cases, including the 10 from the Hickory area ("10 polio cases," 1944, pp. 1, 10).

            Two days later, on June 16, 1944, the situation portrayed by the Hickory Daily Record was dramatically different. In its first polio-related story "above the fold," a bold headline proclaimed Dr. Whims' change in approach:  "Polio Epidemic Bars Public Places To Tots 12, Under."   In a meeting the previous evening, Dr. Whims was quoted as saying that "an epidemic of infantile paralysis definitely exists in Catawba county." Effective the following day, children would be "prohibited from attending churches, Sunday school, theaters, playgrounds, swimming or wading pools, kindergartens, day nurseries, and similar places." An epidemiologist from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in New York was reported to be enroute to the hospital in Charlotte, and Dr. Gaither Hahn, of the National Foundation, announced that a physiotherapist from New York was available to travel to Charlotte, as well.   Dr. Whims pleaded again for calm, and pointed out that panic would be of no benefit in the current situation. He urged parents to not delay in calling a physician, as early intervention was thought to be essential in preventing many of the most serious effects of the disease ("Polio epidemic bars public places," 1944, pp. 1, 10).

On page 6 of the same edition that proclaimed the situation to be an "epidemic," the editors of the Hickory Daily Record published the first of many editorials related to the community's response to the presence of polio in the Hickory area. The first editorial urged parents to keep a watchful eye on their children, and asked for public compliance with the ban on public gatherings of children ("Communicable disease," 1944). The initial polio editorial provided good advice for area residents, but, within a matter of days, the editorial page of the Hickory Daily Record would be used in a significant way to further the "miracle."

The following day, June 17, 1944, the Hickory Daily Record reported two additional cases of polio in the Hickory area and the scheduling of a special children's sermon on local radio station WHKY by Dr. John R. Hay, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church ("2 more polio cases," 1944).  It is clear that WHKY played a large part in the initial dissemination of information regarding the polio epidemic ("The Miracle of Hickory," 1992); however, the inherent difficulties in documenting radio broadcasts--especially those of more than 60 years ago--make consideration of the radio station's role in the "Miracle of Hickory" virtually impossible. In particular, Sydney Halma, current executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association and curator of the association's museum in Newton, expressed his opinion that the radio station's role in the community's reaction and response was a substantial one (S. Halma, personal communication, June 29, 2005).

June 19, 1944, brought a report of seven new cases of polio in various areas of Catawba county over the weekend, and the first indication of problems at Charlotte Memorial Hospital. The wards being used for polio victims were full, and an army hospital tent was being erected on the hospital grounds to house additional patients. Nurses were reported to be in short supply at the hospital, also, and the Catawba county public health nurse asked for registered nurses to contact her if they were willing to work on a temporary basis at Charlotte Memorial.   Only one of the seven new victims was reported to be from Hickory, while the other six were from outlying areas surrounding Hickory. Dr. Whims issued a statement that cited the similarities in several polio cases, namely that they had been swimming recently and drank unprocessed milk from dairy cows kept at home.   In addition, several of the homes did not have screens on doors and windows, and the possibility of flies spreading the disease was being investigated. Even while issuing the statement, Dr. Whims was complimentary of the early efforts of the public to respond in every way needed ("Seven new polio cases," 1944). An editorial in the same edition further discussed the great need for nurses, and called it an "essential public duty" ("More nurses needed," 1944, p. 4).

Of course, the Hickory Daily Record was not the only area newspaper reporting on the polio epidemic. Based in Newton, the Catawba News-Enterprise carried reports of the spread of the disease. Typical was a front-page article on June 20, 1944, under the headline, "Polio Epidemic Hits Over Catawba County," relating a statement from Dr. H. C. Whims and a tally of the current cases ("Polio epidemic hits," 1944, pp. 1, 4). The newspaper in neighboring Lincoln county carried reports, as well, usually focused on the effects of the epidemic on Lincoln residents ("43 polio cases," 1944).

            The June 21, 1944, edition of the Hickory Daily Record contained a story detailing some of the effects the epidemic was having on various programs and gatherings.   In particular, the Civil Air Patrol's Cadet program had been suspended, along with other programs that prompted the assembly of children.   A scrap paper drive sponsored by a Boy Scout troop was cancelled for the same reason.   The front-page article also listed the latest admissions to the polio ward at Charlotte Memorial Hospital and reported on the arrival of visiting specialists from Yale University who had worked in the previous year's Chicago epidemic ("Polio suspends," 1944).

The "Miracle" Begins

            On Thursday, June 22, 1944, what was later dubbed "The Miracle of Hickory" began. Three men, all leaders in various aspects of the fight to contain the polio epidemic and treat those affected, met in a solemn gathering that morning.  Word was received from Charlotte that the hospital--including the temporary tent wards--was filled to capacity and would be accepting no more patients from outside the immediate area. Gastonia Orthopedic Hospital was full, as well.   Something had to be done with the growing number of patients, and the responsibility fell on these three to decide upon a plan of action ("New polio cases," 1944; Sink, 1998).

Dr. H. C. Whims, county public health officer, Dr. Gaither Hahn, chairman of the Catawba county chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and Dr. C. H. Crabtree, North Carolina representative for the National Foundation, realized that a local facility was needed. By default, although there were only a few cases of polio within the city of Hickory, the community was quickly becoming the center of the polio war. Discussion began of possible existing facilities, including schools and churches (Sink, 1998).

A facility that was already owned by the county was preferable in many ways, though. Three years prior, a stone building was constructed by the WPA on 62 acres of wooded land near Lake Hickory, just three miles northwest of the city (Sink, 1998; Zubar, 1997).   The facility at that time was in use as the Lake Hickory Health Camp, a "fresh air" camp for underprivileged children. Less than a half-hour after the meeting began, Dr. Whims ordered that the 57 children be sent home from the camp, and an emergency hospital for polio victims be established on the site ("Polio treatment center," 1944, p. 6). It was Thursday morning when the decision was made; on Saturday afternoon, the first patients were admitted (National Foundation, 1945).

Published just a few hours after the meeting of the three physicians, the afternoon edition of the Hickory Daily Record contained the first report of the use of the camp as a temporary hospital. The headline read:   "New Polio Cases Will Be Treated At Health Camp:   Those At Charlotte To Stay; Campers Sent Home."  The first paragraph reported:

Provisions are being made to use the Catawba County Health Camp as a center for the treatment of possible new infantile paralysis cases that may develop in Catawba and adjoining counties, following notification from Charlotte that the Charlotte Memorial hospital cannot accommodate additional cases from this area.   ("New polio cases," 1944, p. 1)

The story in the Record went on to explain that the epidemiologists from Yale had been sent to Hickory, and had established an office at the county health department. The polio experts expressed the opinion--proven over time to be tragically inaccurate--that the epidemic was nearing an end, because only a few new cases had been reported in the past two days. All physicians in the county were summoned to a meeting set for Thursday evening to detail the developing plans ("Epidemiologists here," 1944; "New polio cases," 1944).

The three physicians spearheading the effort divided the duties among themselves.   Dr. Whims took responsibility for supervising the preparation of the physical facilities at the camp; Dr. Hahn began arranging for needed supplies and equipment; Dr. Crabtree was in charge of locating medical personnel and adequate funding (Sink, 1998).

The Thursday afternoon edition of the Hickory Daily Record also contained an editorial praising the quick response of the local leaders in the fight against polio, and reporting the start of work to transform the camp into an emergency hospital with a capacity of 40 patients. The strong action of Dr. Whims, in particular, was presented to the public as reason for confidence that the people of Catawba county were in good hands ("Polio treatment center," 1944).

Early in the afternoon, Dr. Whims met with Mr. and Mrs. Q. E. Herman, two local architects in Hickory, and enlisted their help to design--in a matter of hours--a plan for constructing an addition onto the small, stone structure that existed at the camp, and to supervise the construction. By mid-afternoon, truckloads of lumber began arriving from three local lumber companies. Nothing was said about payment; such talk would come later, if at all. Before the day was finished, a host of carpenters, electricians, and other tradesmen joined the construction project on a voluntary basis. Professionals from the community left their practices and joined the volunteer effort.   Floodlights were set up so that work could continue through the night (National Foundation, 1945; Sink, 1998).

Dozens of other volunteer workers joined the effort on Friday, even though rain fell most of the day. A prison work team dug a trench for a new three-mile water main from Hickory to the new hospital. Hickory Fire Department members, working on their own time, installed hydrants, and the telephone company donated and installed a switchboard. Volunteer electricians, as well as employees from Duke Power Company, wired the hospital for electricity. Members of the National Guard cleared trees and brush to make room for the new hospital addition (Sink, 1998).

Friday's edition of the Hickory Daily Record contained the first of dozens of pleas for various types of assistance from the community. Seamstresses were needed to assist the Red Cross in making isolation gowns, nurses' gowns, nurses' caps, and surgical masks.  Hot plates were needed to boil water in the hospital wards. Electric wringer washing machines were needed for loan to the polio effort. At the same time, the Record reported many items already received, including blankets, beds, mattresses, and other supplies ("Cooperative effort," 1944; "Mrs. Matthews," 1944).  A respirator, better known as an "iron lung," arrived on Friday from Morganton ("Iron lung," 1944).

The Friday, June 23, 1944, edition of the newspaper from Newton contained a report on the establishment of a hospital at the camp, but the focus of the News-Enterprise was more on facts, and less on an appeal for assistance ("Turn fresh air camp," 1944). As previously mentioned, it is clear that, because of its immediacy, the local radio station played a tremendous role in communicating initial needs at the emergency hospital (Sink, 1998). Over time, though, the pages of the Hickory Daily Record would serve to encourage and sustain public interest in the humanitarian effort underway on the shores of Lake Hickory.

By Saturday afternoon, 54 hours after it was first conceived in the minds of three physicians who were confronted with a seemingly impossible situation, the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital opened its doors to the first patients (National Foundation, 1945). It was, as historian Richard Zubar phrased it, "almost miraculous" (Zubar, 1997)--it was "The Miracle of Hickory." The Saturday afternoon newspaper reported that the hospital was ready, pending the arrival that afternoon of additional nursing staff ("Center awaits," 1944; "Officials confer," 1944).

The Monday, June 26, 1944, edition of the Hickory Daily Record reported the opening of the hospital on Saturday, indicating that 16 patients from five North Carolina counties were admitted over the weekend ("Richmond boy," 1944).  The hospital's initial nursing staff consisted of 10 local volunteer nurses and two nurses from the State Board of Health; the arrival of 15 to 20 additional nurses in Hickory was expected soon. With so many admissions over the weekend, Dr. Hahn became convinced that additional space would be needed beyond the two wards already completed by workers. Two military hospital tents were sent from Moore General Hospital in Black Mountain, and workers on site in Hickory had walls and floors for the new tent-topped wards virtually completed by the time the tents arrived by army truck. Cooks were being recruited to serve in the not-yet-functional hospital kitchen, even as women of Hickory labored initially to prepare hundreds of meals in their homes. Volunteers staffed the reception area of the hospital around the clock ("Richmond boy," 1944).   The newspaper also reported additional cases of polio, as well as other restrictions and cancellations of children's activities ("Camp delayed," 1944; "Ross sisters," 1944).

The same edition of the Record also editorialized on the response of the Hickory public, submitting that "the response and cooperation on the part of citizens has been commendable." Numerous specific examples of public assistance were cited, including a donation of $25 by the Sweetwater Sunday School, an outreach of the First Presbyterian Church of Hickory. The Record went on to point out the expense involved in the undertaking. The local chapter of the National Foundation sent $1000 to Charlotte to pay for the cost of treating Catawba county residents there, and expenses were "being hourly incurred" at the emergency hospital.   The editors praised the "fine spirit of cooperation" that had prompted physicians, nurses, and laymen to respond in every way needed during the polio crisis ("Excellent public response," 1944). This was the first report of dozens made by the Record over several months listing donations to the National Foundation for use in the operation of the emergency hospital in Hickory.

Also on Monday, June 26, 1944, a bylined article by Ann Seely Davey appeared inside the Hickory Daily Record on page 10. The story described in vivid language what was happening out near Lake Hickory, maintaining that the "modern treatment center" was a "perfect place for the care of polio victims." Davey wrote:

Sunshine streams through the two screened wards, which are completely isolated from the main building.   Long rows of hospital cots, donated for the emergency by Moore General hospital at Black Mountain, line the knotted pine wards, one of which is used for diagnosis and one for cases definitely diagnosed as infantile paralysis.   Nurses in crisp white uniforms and white shoes and stockings go quickly about their work, folding blankets which will be used in the Kenny treatment, making up beds with clean white sheets and flawlessly tucked "hospital corners," filling jars with alcohol for thermometers, hanging fly-swatters within easy reach of anyone, in case a curious fly should find his way through the protective screens in the wards.

            Electric hot-plates, donated by local citizens, are being put into condition for use.   The big, pale green iron lung, sent from Grace hospital, Morganton, awaits its first patient, and a technician is always on duty, skilled in the operation of the lung.   An oxygen tent has been provided by Dr. J. D. Rudisill of Lenoir, who sent a technician to set it up.   (Davey, 1944, p. 10)

Davey went on to maintain that the "best-trained specialists, physio-therapists, epidemiologists, doctors, nurses and health authorities that the nation has to offer" were at work at the emergency hospital on Lake Hickory, using "every weapon known to modern medicine" (Davey, 1944, p. 10).

The Hickory Daily Record on Tuesday, June 27, printed a front-page story detailing many of the medical experts who were on hand to assist in Hickory. The same article appealed to the community to loan baby beds for use by younger children at the emergency hospital.   The Record also included the names of numerous volunteers serving at the hospital, as well as merchants who had made donations ("2 physio-therapists," 1944).

Also on Tuesday, an iron lung was first used at the hospital. Boyce Rash, a 27-year-old male from West Jefferson in the North Carolina mountains, was placed in the respirator. The Ashe County man was paralyzed from the chest down and was said to be in critical condition ("First patient," 1944). The Record , in an editorial, also warned of the danger to adults during the polio epidemic.  Although the disease most often affected children, Rash's admission, as well as a handful of others, pointed out that adults were susceptible as well ("Reasonable request," 1944).

The Wednesday, June 28, edition of the Hickory Daily Record contained another article praising residents for their assistance to the Red Cross in the organization's sewing project ("Women lauded," 1944), as well as a report that the state chairman of the National Foundation was in Hickory to inspect the hospital ("Dr. McDonald," 1944). An editorial the same day stressed the need for additional funds for the hospital's operation, and reported that an expansion of the hospital was planned to care for at least 100 patients at a time--a plan that was referred to as "an insurance policy," in case the need developed. The Record also dealt with the early seeds of a disagreement that would develop over the next 15 years concerning the disposition of funds received by the local chapters of the National Foundation, and what portion of the funds would be used locally. The Record editors assured the public that funds received by the National Foundation would indeed benefit the residents of the county ("More money needed," 1944).

One week after the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital opened its doors, 45 patients had been admitted to its wards. Another 12 patients had been examined at the hospital, but had been sent home after seeing a physician. After only a week, staffing of the hospital was nearly complete, and another iron lung was received in the event it was needed. Work was progressing on an addition to the hospital's kitchen, and the dusty road leading to the former camp had been oiled. The polio epidemic, the Record reported, was confined to 18 counties in western North Carolina, and many organizations had banded together in a short period of time to attempt to confine the disease to the areas already affected ("Polio hospital cases," 1944).   The Record's editors stated:

It is a real tribute to those who have been responsible for the miracle already wrought in the establishment of an efficient hospital within a few days' time that Stone Crane, assistant disaster relief director of the American Red Cross, has praised the project as the most outstanding example of cooperative effort he has ever seen. Mr. Crane made the statement out of an experience of more than thirteen years of work with all kinds of emergency hospital centers. ("Local management," 1944, p. 6)

Over the next few weeks, articles in the Hickory Daily Record focused on medical advice and further restrictions on children's activities as authorities sought to contain the epidemic ("Bible camp," 1944; "Officials set," 1944; "Protection against polio," 1944; "Visiting specialist," 1944); three deaths at the emergency hospital, which had a great impact on those working and volunteering at the facility ("Second death," 1944; "Valdese baby," 1944); the appointment of Dr. Whims, the county health officer, as the official director of the hospital ("Whims to head," 1944); and the construction of additional wards at the hospital to handle a growing number of patients ("Adequate funds," 1944; "New ward," 1944; "Polio building addition," 1944; "Polio center," 1944).   A controversy arose, also, over comments made by a Charlotte News columnist, who alleged that there was great hysteria in Hickory because of the epidemic.   The Record quickly came to the defense of the people of Hickory ("Apology made," 1944).   Three weeks after the hospital opened, it housed 92 patients ("Polio center," 1944).

The "Miracle" Continues

Daily articles in the Hickory Daily Record continued to report on the emergency hospital throughout its operation. Detailing the contents of those hundreds of stories, although a worthy endeavor, is far beyond the scope of this project.

National exposure came to the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital in July 1944. A reporter and a photographer from Life magazine arrived in Hickory to do a feature story on the emergency hospital, and the result was four pages of photographs, accompanied by a brief article, in the July 31, 1944, edition of the prominent magazine, all displayed in Life's well-known style ("Infantile paralysis," 1944). The following January, the hospital was again featured in a national publication as Independent Woman focused a rather lengthy feature story on the hospital (LaBarr, 1945).   In February 1945, Coronet magazine devoted five pages to the hospital (Hughes, 1945), based on interviews conducted in September 1944 ("The great polio epidemic," 1992). Paramount Studios also filmed a drama featuring the story, called "My Home Town," that featured Academy Award-winning actress Greer Garson as narrator ("The great polio epidemic," 1992).

The most extensive national coverage of the hospital in the 1940s, though, was a booklet published by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis called The Miracle of Hickory . The booklet served primarily as a fund-raising tool, but contained an excellent summary of the events related to the hospital that has largely served as the basis for later works on the "miracle" (National Foundation, 1945).

After nearly nine months of operation, the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital closed on March 5, 1945. There were 87 patients in the hospital at the time of its closure, and the afternoon edition of the Hickory Daily Record recounted how they were moved to a new treatment center at the Charlotte Memorial Hospital in a mile-long caravan of 70 cars and 12 ambulances. Ranging in age from 10 months to 29 years, the remaining patients at the emergency hospital left with mixed feelings because of the affection and care received in Hickory. The reporter closed the article by stating:  "So ends the final chapter of the 'Miracle of Hickory.'   It's history now" (Dashiell, 1945, pp. 1, 10).   The editors bid the "kiddies" farewell in the same issue ("Au revoir," 1945, p. 6).

Beyond the "Miracle"

Over the course of the hospital's existence, 663 patients were evaluated at the facility; 528 were diagnosed with polio, of which 454 were admitted to the hospital.   There were 364 males and 299 females evaluated; most were white, although 55 African-Americans and one native American were evaluated ("'Miracle of Hickory' hospital stats," 2000). According to one source, 12 patients died at the hospital, the lowest percentage of any polio facility at the time ("The great polio epidemic," 1992).

In spite of the great effort expended by people from Hickory, only a few of the patients were from the city itself. A total of 71 were from Catawba county. Most of the others were from counties spread across western North Carolina (Sink, 1998), although patients treated in Hickory came from a total of 74 counties from five states (Braswell, 2000b).

The hospital was largely, but not totally, operated with funds from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The facilities, though, were constructed with local donations, as no funds from the National Foundation could be used for physical structures (LaBarr, 1945).   An accurate accounting of funds expended by residents of Hickory to care for the patients was impossible even in 1944-45, as many donations were made spontaneously, with no log books or receipts involved.

Following World War II, the facilities of the emergency hospital were used by returning soldiers and their families upon their initial arrival home (Sink, 1998). The temporary additions to the original stone building were torn down in April 1957 to make room for a new armory for the U. S. Army Reserve unit (Bridges, 1957; "Symbol of Hickory," 1957). Later, the old stone building would serve as the headquarters for the Hickory Parks and Recreation Department (Sink, 1998).

Polio would rear its head two more times in the Hickory area. Four years later, in 1948, 95 cases were reported in Catawba County; in 1953, there were 105 cases in the county (Sink, 1998). The Salk polio vaccine arrived on the scene in 1955, and with large vaccination campaigns, the threat of polio subsided (Martin, 1955; Ross, 1955; "Salk vaccine," 1955; "Thousands get vaccine," 1955; "Vaccine given," 1955; "Volunteers to help," 1955).

The aftermath of the "miracle" included a dark period in the late 1950s. A bitter dispute arose between the national organization of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the officers of the organization's Catawba county chapter. The controversy erupted over funds held in the local chapter's treasury, raised within the county to pay for the continuing treatment of area polio victims through the Catawba County Health Department. The national organization insisted that the funds be remitted to them, and, on May 13, 1958, terminated the affiliation of the Catawba chapter with the national organization ("Refusal to give up," 1958). This action prompted a flurry of articles, letters, and editorials in the Hickory Daily Record , many of them in support of Dr. Gaither Hahn, who had labored locally for many years in the fight against polio, but had drawn the ire of the national organization ("Appreciation expressed," 1958; "Charleston, W.Va.," 1958; "County polio group," 1958; "Dan Ligon," 1958; "Dr. Hahn gets cash," 1958; "The Foundation," 1958; Lewis, 1958; "N. C. Orthopedic," 1958; "Old pictures," 1958; "Polio foundation," 1958; Ross, 1958; Shuford, 1958; "S. C. polio fighter," 1958; "Yeatts says," 1958; York, 1958).

In the spring of 1959, the suit was heard in United States Federal Court in Statesville, North Carolina.  In 1960, the National Foundation was awarded $44,000 of the funds collected by the then-defunct Catawba chapter.  However, the National Foundation was ordered by the court to use the money solely for the benefit of Catawba county polio victims (Sink, 1998).

Interest Continues in the "Miracle"

Beginning with the 20th anniversary of "The Miracle of Hickory," every decade's anniversary of the hospital's founding has brought significant media interest. In 1965, a significant retrospective, complete with numerous photographs of the hospital's construction, completion, and treatment of patients, was published in the pages of the Hickory Daily Record . The lengthy feature story, written without a byline, contained a moving summary of the hospital's story ("The miracle of Hickory," 1965).

Perhaps the most significant series of anniversary articles was written for the 30 th anniversary of the "miracle" by Wake Bridges, a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record who had worked for the same paper during the days of the hospital's construction and operation, and was instrumental in the newspaper's coverage of the "miracle," although few stories from the 1944-45 period were bylined (Bridges, 1945). Bridges' 1975 reflective series in the Hickory Daily Record was informative, insightful, and compelling (Bridges, 1975a, 1975b, 1975c, 1975d, 1975e, 1975f). A few years later, Bridges authored a book on the history of Hickory, called Hickory: It's One Hell of a Town, that contained three chapters on the "miracle" (Bridges, 1982).

The approaching 50th anniversary of the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital prompted several observances. A group of polio survivors sponsored a commemorative event, including the showing of a home video taken by one patient's father at the hospital in 1944 ("Area's polio epidemic," 1992; "Polio care site," 1992; "Polio patient recalls," 1992). A reunion of surviving patients from the hospital was organized and held in 1994, an event covered extensively by author Alice Sink, associate professor at High Point University, in her book, The Grit Behind the Miracle ("Book eyes epidemic," 1998; "'Miracle of Hickory' explored," 1998; Sink, 1998).   Reporters for the Hickory Daily Record (Price, 1994), the Charlotte Observer (Canrobert, 1994a, 1994b), and the Associated Press (Patterson, 1994), as well, covered the 50th anniversary.

Historian Richard Eller, now an instructor at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, wrote, produced, directed, and narrated a half-hour video on the "miracle" previously mentioned, and the release of that work prompted significant media coverage of the story of the emergency hospital (Eller, 1997; Kramer, 1998; "Local history program," 1997; Pennell, 1998).   In 2000, the state of North Carolina placed a historical marker commemorating the "Miracle of Hickory" near the site of the former hospital (Braswell, 2000a, 2000b). Later the same year, as a part of the Millennium Art Project in Hickory, a public vote was held to select one of three proposed monuments to be erected in downtown Hickory to observe "The Miracle of Hickory" ("Cast a vote," 2000; MacKay, 2000; Rooke, 2000). A 25-foot obelisk designed by a western North Carolina artist, Maryrose Carroll, was dedicated in June 2001 (Deal, 2001; Greene, 2001; Mitchell, 2001; "Tower of miracles," 2001).

The Media's Role in the "Miracle"

Strength of character comes from a deeper source than the daily newspaper.  It is clear that the strength and compassion exhibited by the people of Hickory during the 1944 polio epidemic came from a profound sense of humanitarian concern. The people of Hickory opened the doors of the city to polio victims from throughout the region, while other communities allowed fear and distrust to color their reactions and inhibit their response.

Although compassion itself was not provided by the mass media, encouragement toward action based on that compassion was. In particular, the news reports and, especially, the editorials of the local newspaper, the Hickory Daily Record , served to galvanize public support for the construction and continuing operation of the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital. It was the action of the newspaper that, in large part, spurred the people of Hickory to action.

The power of the mass media is, indeed, great. Far too often, that power is used casually, with little thought toward consequences.   However, occasionally, there arises a situation in which the power of the mass media is used in the best way possible--a situation in which the best in people is stimulated by the highest and best action of the media. And when those two elements come together, something almost miraculous can happen.

In 1944, on the shores of Lake Hickory in one small town in western North Carolina, the best of the media spurred the best in people--and the result was "The Miracle of Hickory."


Adequate funds assured [editorial].   (1944, July 4). Hickory Daily Record, p. 4.

Apology made by columnist.   (1944, July 6). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 12.

Appreciation expressed.   (1958, August 7).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 13.

Area's polio epidemic to be commemorated.   (1992, May 23).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 3A.

Au revoir, kiddies [editorial].   (1945, March 6).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

Bible camp off.   (1944, July 5). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Book eyes epidemic.   (1998, October 1).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 5B.

Braswell, L.   (2000a, May 22).   Plaque, stand will commemorate 'miracle of Hickory.'

Hickory Daily Record, p. 4A.

Braswell, L.   (2000b, June 1).   The start of a 'miracle.' Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1A, 10A.

Bridges, W.   (1945, March 1).   'Angels of mercy' called here from far and near help win

fight on polio.   Hickory Daily Record, p. 8.

Bridges, W.   (1957, April 4).   Tragedy of 1944 reviewed as site cleared for armory.  

Hickory Daily Record, p. 8.

Bridges, W.   (1975a, May 19).   During World War II, a battle raged in Hickory. Hickory

Daily Record, pp. 1A, 12A.

Bridges, W.   (1975b, May 20).   In race with death, citizens built polio hospital. Hickory

Daily Record, pp. 1A, 10A.

Bridges, W.   (1975c, May 21).   People fought polio by deeds, gifts. Hickory Daily Record,

pp. 1A, 10A.

Bridges, W.   (1975d, May 22).   90-day wonder continued to grow. Hickory Daily Record,

pp. 1A, 10A.

Bridges, W.   (1975e, May 23).   More stories come to light as epidemic events retold.

Hickory Daily Record, p. 12A.

Bridges, W.   (1975f, May 23).   Nation views 'miracle' in last days. Hickory Daily Record,

pp. 1A, 12A.

Bridges, W.   (1982).   Hickory: It's One Hell of a Town.   Lakemont, GA: Copple House


Camp delayed at Linn-Haven.   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

Canrobert, M.   (1994a, June 12).   '40s polio battle fought on Catawba home front.   Charlotte

Observer/Catawba Valley Neighbors, pp. 1V, 17V.

Canrobert, M.   (1994b, June 29). After 50 years, '44 epidemic lives in vivid memories.  

Charlotte Observer/Catawba Valley Neighbors , p. 1V.

Cast a vote for art of 'Miracle.'   (2000, August 4).   Charlotte Observer/Catawba Valley

Neighbors, p. 8V.

Center awaits first patients.   (1944, June 24). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Charleston., W.Va., editor backs local polio stand.   (1958, August 18).   Hickory Daily Record,

p. 1.

Communicable disease [editorial].   (1944, June 16). Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

Conover boy, 10, is fourth polio victim, this area.   (1944, June 12). Hickory Daily Record,    

p. 1.

Cooperative effort [editorial].   (1944, June 23). Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

County polio group backed.   (1958, August 6).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Dan Ligon voices faith in Dr. Gaither Hahn, in letter answering Yeatts' request.   (1958,

August 26).   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 14.

Dashiell, V.   (1945, March 5).   87 victims of paralysis moved in long caravan.   Hickory Daily

Record, pp. 1, 10.

Davey, A. S.   (1944, June 26).   Health camp here made 'perfect' place to treat infantile paralysis.

Hickory Daily Record, p. 10.

Deal, C. H.   (2001, July 12).   Completion of polio art termed 'routine, standard.'   Hickory News ,

p. 1.

Dr. Hahn gets cash to assist polio victims.   (1958, August 4).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Dr. McDonald inspects polio hospital here; 13 more patients admitted.   (1944, June 29).

Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

87 victims of paralysis moved in long caravan.   (9145, March 5).   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1,


Eller, R (Producer, Director, Narrator, Writer).   (1997).   The Miracle of Hickory: The 1944 Polio

Epidemic [videotape].   Hickory: Charter Communications.

Epidemiologists here.   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, p. 10.

Excellent public response [editorial].   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, p. 4.

First patient is in iron lung.   (1944, June 28). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

43 polio cases in Catawba County reported in all.   (1944, June 29).   Lincoln County News, p. 1.

The Foundation needs repairs [editorial].   (1958, August 4).   Reprinted from the Charlotte

Observer in the Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

The great polio epidemic of 1944.   (1992, n.d.).   Hickory News, 125 th Anniversary Edition.

Greene, V.   (2001, April 25).   Monument site to move?   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1A, 8A.

Hughes, C.   (1945, February).   The miracle of Hickory.   Coronet, pp. 3-7.

Infantile paralysis: Child victims fill beds of an emergency hospital as epidemic hits rural

counties of North Carolina.   (1945, July 31).   Life, pp. 25-28.

Iron lung at emergency hospital.   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, p. 10.

Kramer, K.   (1998, February 1).   Hickory polio camp stirs old memories.   Charlotte

Observer/Catawba Valley Neighbors, pp. 1V, 4V.

LaBarr, M. E.   (1945, January).   How one state met its polio epidemic.   Independent

Woman, pp. 14-15, 27-29.

Lewis, N.   (1958, July 3).   Dr. Lewis speaks up [letter to the editor].   Hickory Daily Record,      

p. 6.

Local history program reaches national audience.   (1997, May 5).   Observer News-Enterprise,   

p. 1.

Local management [editorial].   (1944, June 30).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

MacKay, Steven.   (2000, August 6).   Cast your vote.   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1B.

March of Dimes.   (n.d.)   About Us.   Retrieved July 11, 2005, from

Martin, E.   (1955, July 20).   Confusion at minimum at 'Operation Sure Shot.'   Hickory Daily

Record, p. 1.

Mitchell, M.   (2001, June 9).   Historic moments.   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1A, 9A.

'The miracle of Hickory.'   (1965, Sept. 11). Hickory Daily Record, p. 4F.

'Miracle of Hickory' explored in new book.   (1998, Sept. 24).   Hickory News, p. 1.

"Miracle of Hickory" hospital stats, 1944-45.   (2000, June 1).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1A.

Monuments to honor the "miracle of Hickory."   (2000, June 1).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1A.

More money needed [editorial].   (1944, June 29).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

More nurses needed [editorial].   (1944, June 20).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 4.

Mrs. Mathews dies of polio.   (1944, June 23).   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.   (1945).   The Miracle of Hickory.   New York:


New polio cases will be treated at health camp.   (1944, June 22).   Hickory Daily Record,     

pp. 1, 10.

New ward at paralysis hospital.   (1944, July 3). Hickory Daily Record, p. 5.

N. C. Orthopedic Hospital surgeon-in-chief praises Dr. Gaither Hahn.   (1958, July 30).   Hickory

Daily Record, p. 1.

Officials confer at camp on polio.   (1944, June 24). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Officials set polio meet here; Catawba cases 49; total for state is 149.   (1944, July 1).

Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Old pictures recall 'miracle of Hickory.'   (1958, August 2).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 16.

Patterson, D.   (1994, Sept. 16).   '44 miracle recalled. Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1A, 8A.

Pennell, A.   (1998, January 30).   Documentary spotlights 'The miracle of Hickory.'   Hickory

Daily Record , p. 1.

Polio building addition goes forward fast.   (1944, July 10). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Polio care site being recognized.   (1992, May 26).   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1A, 12A.

Polio center adds 2 cases.   (1944, July 11). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Polio epidemic bars public places to tots 12, under.   (1944, June 16). Hickory Daily Record,

pp. 1, 10.

Polio epidemic hits over Catawba County.   (1944, June 20).   Catawba News-Enterprise, pp.    

1, 4.

Polio foundation planning to shift to arthritis study.   (1958, July 7).   Hickory Daily Record,

pp. 1, 12.

Polio hospital cases now 45.   (1944, June 30). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

Polio patient recalls outbreak.   (1992, May 23). Hickory Daily Record, p. 3A.

Polio suspends CAP cadet unit.   (1944, June 21). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Polio treatment center [editorial].   (1944, June 22). Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

Possible polio case treated.   (1944, June 7).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Price, H.   (1994, Sept. 11).   50 years ago, Hickory battled polio epidemic.   Hickory Daily

Record, p. 2A.

Protection against polio [editorial].   (1944, July 11). Hickory Daily Record, p. 4.

Reasonable request [editorial].   (1944, June 28). Hickory Daily Record, p. 6.

Refusal to give up local funds brings reprisal against Catawba polio group.   (1958, May

13).   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 14.

Richmond boy in Newton, 9, dies of polio.   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Rooke, M.   (2000, June 16).   Art will signify Hickory miracle.   Charlotte Observer/Catawba

Valley Neighbors, pp. 1V, 5V.

Ross, H.   (1955, April 18).   Treats pledged for tots who get polio shots here.   Hickory

Daily Record, p. 1.

Ross, H.   (1958, August 7).   Foundation's tune changes but Dr. Hahn continues grim fight

for victims of polio.   Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 16.

Ross sisters both ill.   (1944, June 26). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Salk vaccine for Catawba children.   (1955, April 18).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Second death at polio camp.   (1944, July 5). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Seven new polio cases in county.   (1944, June 19). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Shuford, J.   (1958, Sept. 18).   Dr. Shuford writes [letter to the editor].   Hickory Daily Record,    

p. 8.

Sink, A. E.   (1998).   The Grit Behind the Miracle.   Lanham, MD: University Press of   America.

S. C. polio fighter backs Dr. Hahn, tells of resisting national agency.   (1958, May 16).  

Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 16.

Symbol of Hickory spirit removed.   (1957, April 4).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 8.

10 polio cases in 3 counties.   (1944, June 14). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

Third polio case is reported here.   (1944, June 10). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Thousands get vaccine today.   (1955, April 18).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

'Tower of miracles' to be dedicated Friday.   (2001, June 7).   Observer News-Enterprise, pp. 1, 3.

Turn fresh air camp into polio hospital.   (1944, June 23).   Catawba News-Enterprise, pp. 1, 4.

2 in this area polio victims.   (1944, June 8). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

2 more polio cases in county.   (1944, June 17). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

2 physio-therapists here to give Kenny treatment.   (1944, June 27). Hickory Daily Record,   

pp. 1, 10.

Vaccine given in Lenoir area.   (1955, April 18).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Valdese baby dies of polio at camp here.   (1944, July 6). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 10.

Visiting specialist speaks [editorial].   (1944, July 7). Hickory Daily Record, p. 4.

Volunteers to help with Salk vaccination sought.   (1955, April 18).   Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Whims to head polio hospital.   (1944, July 7). Hickory Daily Record, pp. 1, 8.

Women lauded for their help.   (1944, June 29). Hickory Daily Record, p. 1.

Yeatts says Catawbans uninformed in fund dispute.   (1958, August 2).   Hickory Daily Record,

p. 6.

York, J.   (1958, August 7).   Dr. Hahn's parked automobile 'miracle of Hickory' symbol.  

Hickory Daily Record, p. 13.

Zubar, Richard.   (1997).   In R. Eller (Producer, Director, Narrator, Writer).   The Miracle of

Hickory: The 1944 Polio Epidemic [videotape].   Hickory: Charter Communications.