Throwback Thursday – Polio in Kentucky and the origin of Candy Land

Throwback Thursday continues with another glimpse into a disease from years past this week. Let’s talk more about polio in Kentucky and its unique tie to one of the most famous board games in the world.

Officially poliomyelitis, the disease hit the United States the hardest in the 1940s and 50s. It first showed in America as far back as 1894. Bowling Green Dr. B. S. Rutherford was one of the first in the state to conduct research. In 1909, he presented his diagnosis and treatment findings to the Warren County Medical Society, recommending ways to keep muscles and the spine moving.

Hundreds of Kentuckians were infected starting in the 1920s. The disease was hitting the whole country, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was no different. A wheelchair-ridden polio victim himself, he started what was known as “Birthday Ball” fundraising events to bring awareness and funds for finding a cure in the 1930s. It was reported in the Warren County Courier newspaper in 1934 that even Bowling Green held a grand dance with the College Heights Band and a parade march.

A vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s. Research showed the average death rate was 4.4 percent per 100 thousand people. Seventy-three percent of those infected were under 10 years old. 

That’s where the famous Candy Land board game originated. In 1939, Eleanor Abbott, a California schoolteacher, was quarantined in a polio ward filled with inflicted kids in iron lungs and leg braces. The game board is full of whimsy and sends players into a liberating fantasy of movement, designed especially for children struck immobile from polio. The original game board even featured a child in a leg brace. 

The magic of the Candy Land game spread and still resonates. Polio has since been eradicated.