The prosperity of the Fifties was underlined by anxiety. If poverty seemed to be in retreat, there was still the threat of disease. The most feared was polio. It was not a new disease but had afflicted mankind for generations. In the twentieth century, polio became more virulent, ironically due to better hygiene that greatly lessened exposure and resistance. Calgary suffered regular outbreaks in the twenties and thirties that closed schools. In one Edmonton outbreak more than seventy people were afflicted and nine died. Through 1952 and 1953 the western provinces had a major epidemic, severest in Winnipeg but Calgary also had several hundred cases. The Red Cross Crippled Children's Hospital (now the Alberta Children's' Hospital) opened a state of the art building in 1952; it was immediately filled with polio cases from the city and surrounding region.
The incidence of polio was not actually very high. In the 1953 epidemic, Alberta had 1,500 cases, although almost one in every ten who contracted the disease died. Others were left permanently disabled. In a population of over a million, it does not seem like a particularly large outbreak. However, polio had a psychological effect out of proportion to the numbers. It struck largely at children, although many adults were also afflicted. Many sufferers died from a horrifying paralysis that made it impossible to breathe. The treatment, enclosure in a pressure tube called the iron lung that looked like nothing so much as a metal sarcophagus, was out of a science fiction nightmare, although it saved many who went on to a full or partial recovery.
The anxiety inspired by polio was more than just fear of a deadly disease. The discovery of penicillin and other medical advances had neutralised many old scourges like tuberculosis. The scientific revolution after the war promised to do away with a great deal of pain and suffering. Polio undermined this faith in the power of science to deliver people, especially children, from the possibility of early mortality. But more than this, the panic perhaps exposed the state of tension that existed behind the good life of the early Fifties. The Cold War and threat of instant annihilation, itself a product of the remorseless advance of science, was always in the background. As one child of the Fifties remembered:
"I was petrified of airplanes, and because of the constant anxiety from that era on the news and the newspapers about the Cold War, I remember being absolutely terrified whenever an airplane came over. I was convinced that that was going to kill us all."
The fear that greeted polio was transference of the spectre of imminent death that many felt in that decade. Ironically, within two years one of the great medical triumphs of the twentieth century, the Salk polio vaccine, was in routine use and polio quickly became a rarity.