Academic Disability Music Public engagement

Music and epidemic: polio in the 1950s #1

I’ve written several times about the polio and pop generation–in fact, it was, became, my way into thinking about the relation between popular music and disability more widely. I was inspired originally by the English singer and lyricist Ian Dury (1942-2000), who I had first come across in the punk scene in 1977. Parts of that research have been coming back to me during COVID-19 lockdown, rock ‘n’ rona … a virus sweeping through society, health service staff contracting it while caring, an international race towards vaccination, world leaders experiencing it, suppressed panic, quarantine and isolation, ventilators….

While we are in lockdown you can freely open access read the relevant chapter from Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (2013), ‘Crippled with nerves: polio survivors in popular music’. My publisher for that book, University of Michigan Press, has made over 1,000 academic books free to read during COVID-19. Click here.


So, the rock ‘n’ roll generation of polio survivors: children and young people from the late 1940s to the early 1950s who contracted poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) during summer epidemics in the last few years before reliable vaccinations were widely available (in the west). US jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman has observed, of his own experience, aged three, in 1949, ‘I’m the last of the last to get polio’. I am interested in the historical specificity of the disease in the post-war west. The introduction of the vaccines that successfully eradicated polio within a few years made that generation dramatically the last (in the west), while the chronological coincidence of the rise of pop culture would lead in a decade or two to a remarkable generation of pop and rock musicians who had been shadowed by ‘the crippler’, as polio was known colloquially in the USA.

In respiratory centres in 1950s America, groups of young ventilator-dependent polio survivors often produced mimeographed newssheets. Referencing the ‘rocking’ technique of physical movement recommended to aid artificial breathing for some, newssheet titles reflected youth and pop music tastes of the time: The Rocking ReporterThe Rock ‘n’ Roll. Minor evidence of the generational correspondence of (late) polio and (early) pop.

Through the twentieth century, increasing public awareness of polio outbreaks (epidemics in New York in 1916, Los Angeles in 1934, Berlin in 1947, Copenhagen in 1952) caused periodic panic among local populations. As polio survivor Marc Shell writes in Polio and its Aftermath, ‘For seventy years, polio traumatized the world…. An American president suffered from its paralyzing effects. So did sixty million other people worldwide. Even when polio did not kill its victims outright, it often crippled them for life. The survivors were the visible reminder of polio’s ever-increasing power to slay, maim, and deform…. No one knew what caused the disease, and there was no cure’.  

But, according to polio survivor Tony Gould in A Summer Plague, ‘everything to do with polio in Britain, not least the disease itself, was on a minor scale’. This changed with the epidemic of 1947, in which 7,776 people contracted the disease. Over the following decade some 58,000 were affected, around 4,000 of whom died, and of the survivors 35,000 were left with a degree of paralysis (Compare figures for the scale of the disease elsewhere: in the 1980s in the USA there were over 600,000 polio survivors, and in India an estimated 12 million.)

One medical student working in a London hospital during one outbreak in the 1950s, when hospital staff were themselves coming down with the disease, described this plague-like situation as ‘absolutely bloody terrifying’.

At this time, the 1950s being the high point of the ‘polio zeitgeist’ (Gould’s phrase), the Salk vaccine was available in Britain for young people (by injection), though not yet widely used. (It would be superseded within a few years by the Sabin vaccine, dispensed nationwide to schoolchildren on sugar cubes.) Some early vaccinations malfunctioned, and infected the patient with the disease. Such an iatrogenic family disaster is what happened to 1960s folk singer Donovan as a boy in Scotland, as he explains in his autobiography:

In the disruption following the Second World War, three epidemics hit [Glasgow]: scarlet fever, diptheria, and polio. The children were hardest hit. The vaccines were too strong, and I was actually given the polio disease this way. So my right leg began to show signs of ‘wasting.’ An operation was performed, cutting the Achilles tendon in the foot, and I wore an ugly leg brace for some time after. It was a long boot made of a hard substance that I wore only at night to give the little leg support. Removing the device would tear the hairs and hurt so much that I cried each morning, painful for my mammy and daddy to watch.

Polio is a highly contagious viral disease that can attack the body’s nervous system. Transmitted by faecally contaminated food and water, in temperate climates it can be a seasonal disease, therefore summer swimming in pools and lakes was a childhood activity feared and discouraged by many parents. Also, polio is primarily a disease of children. Its characteristic operation is that by attacking nerve cells the virus permanently paralyses the activated muscles. So, while Ian Dury in the early 1970s would write and sing a halting love song, ‘Crippled with nerves’, a highlight of his band’s live set (released as a single in 1975), the title phrase itself was both resonant and neurologically informed: Dury was indeed crippled with (by) his nerves, and the audience saw him perform the singing of that….


Knowledge Exchange Music Public engagement

Pop music and eating disorders

The words come out of yr mouth but yr eyes say other things, ‘Help me, please, I’m lost in my own passive resistance, something went wrong’…. Did anyone ever ask you that question—what’s it like being a girl in music?                     

Kim Gordon, ‘Open letter to Karen’

It’s been recognised that some creative practices and industries have had a greater tendency towards anorexia than others. David Garner and Paul Garfinkel’s early study of ‘socio-cultural factors’ found that trainee professional dancers and student fashion models were susceptible; this contrasted with, for instance, students in music colleges and conservatories who, although also (like the dancers) having to undergo ‘demanding and competitive training’, were ‘not required to maintain a thin body shape for their careers’ (1980, 648).

Thus ,‘anorexia nervosa and excessive dieting concerns were overrepresented in the dance and modelling students’ (1980, 647), and with dance—especially at ballet school—many of the students developed anorexia ‘while actively studying’ (652). Further, ‘28% of the professionally oriented dance sample were amenorrhoeic’ (meaning, they had no or few periods) (653) .

Recent work on ‘the impact of thin ideals’ in pop music videos on young female viewers found, probably unsurprisingly, that ‘brief exposure to music videos containing thin and attractive images of women led to increases in body dissatisfaction’ among the female viewers (Tiggemann and Slater 2004, 49, 55). So: studies of both creative practice and media representation have affirmed a cultural connection.

But it is important to acknowledge that this has been problematised by recent critical feminist scholars wary of over-emphasising what Maree Burns has termed ‘the inscriptive power of cultural images of thinness,’ which may ‘render persons [with experience of eating disorders] as passive and docile rather than (also as) engaging with, resisting and potentially transforming the discourses embedded within those images’ (2009, 124-125).  

How does anorexia resonate in pop in particular? Arguably popular music scholars may recognise in ‘the combination of ambition to achieve and dark drive to self-destruct that is characteristic of eating disorders’ (Saukko 2006, 162; emphasis added) a familiar personality profile from their own cultural realm; in my own work I have termed this an aspect of pop’s ‘destructive economy’ (McKay 2013).

The role of the music industry is identified by some other scholars as bearing responsibility. Eric Lott, for, example, describes how US star singer Karen Carpenter ‘internaliz[ed] the business’s murderous pressure on the female image’ (2008, 230). Su Holmes point out that Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni’s ‘anorexia was often explained in terms of the normative script of the “damaged” child star in which fame itself led to her demise’ (2015, 815; emphasis original). Carpenter in the 1970s and Zavaroni in the 1980s each had a very public struggle with their condition with, sadly, fatal consequences.

More widely, a trawl through online media sources such as celebrity news, fans’ websites, and listicles, reveals many pop figures presenting and repeating a familiar narrative. A recent feature on celebrity site Rant Hollywood, for example, contains a list of ‘15 musicians who have suffered from eating disorders’, with a photograph and a single sentence diagnosis or explanation for each. It confirms the place of eating disorders in media and public discourse of (primarily female) pop (Rose 2015).

These musicians include Lady Gaga, Alanis Morissette, Victoria Beckham of the Spice Girls, Ke$ha, and Diana Ross, and many are quoted as explaining their disorder via the industry:

  • Diana Ross: anorexia ‘the result of the anxiety caused by the demands of [producer] Berry Gordy’;
  • Ke$ha: ‘part of my job was to be as skinny as possible and, to make that happen, I had been abusing my body’;
  • Alanis Morissette: ‘suffered between the ages of 14 to 18 while trying to break into the music industry’;
  • Victoria Beckham: ‘under a great amount of pressure to lose weight and stay fit to maintain her pop star image’ (see Rose 2015).  To answer Kim Gordon’s question in her ‘Open letter to Karen [Carpenter]’: this is what it’s like being a girl in music.

The pattern continues with Taylor Swift. This week, in advance of a new documentary about her in which she talks about her experience of an eating disorder, she’s explained: ‘I didn’t know if I was going to feel comfortable with talking about body image and talking about the stuff I’ve gone through in terms of how unhealthy that’s been for me — my relationship with food and all that over the years…. I’m not as articulate as I should be about this topic because there are so many people who could talk about it in a better way. But all I know is my own experience. And my relationship with food was exactly the same psychology that I applied to everything else in my life: if I was given a pat on the head, I registered that as good. If I was given a punishment, I registered that as bad … you just start to accommodate everything towards praise and punishment, including your own body.’ (Seems pretty articulate to me, tbh.)

To answer musician Kim Gordon’s question in her ‘Open letter to Karen [Carpenter]’: it seems that this is still what it’s like being a girl in music.

[All references and the complete research article this is drawn from available for free download]