Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
Water-Related Epidemics


Until the nineteenth century, polio was a common infection that rarely caused serious illness. Most people were exposed to the virus at a young age from polluted drinking water and developed a natural immunity to the disease. However, with improvements to water and sewerage provision in large cities in the United States and Europe, fewer urban residents were exposed to the virus at a young age. Polio then emerged as a virulent epidemic that paralyzed and often killed young adults. The first large-scale polio epidemics hit the U.S. in 1894 and continued into the 1950s. While the virus that causes polio was isolated in 1907, a successful vaccine was not developed, tested, and adopted until the 1950s.

Pollution and Polio, 1945

By 1945, the Cook County Department of Public Health had closed the Des Plaines River to swimming due in part to fears of polio. The Izaack Walton League fought to eradicate sewage pollution in order to control the spread of polio.

See also: Waste Disposal; Industrial Pollution; Des Plaines River

Water Diversions and Polio

On September 28, 1943, the Chicago Tribune reported that a local congressman sought an additional water diversion from Lake Michigan to flush the polio virus from area rivers and streams.

See also: Water; Epidemics

Unofficial Rules for the Polio Epidemic, 1952

On September 13, 1952, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than seven hundred people had contracted polio already that year, making it officially at epidemic stage. The Tribune health editor made a series of recommendations for rules during the polio epidemic.

See also: Public Health; Epidemics