MANY readers who were at school during the 1950s and 1960s will have memories of school friends left physically disabled by the poliomyelitis virus epidemic - more commonly known as polio.

This highly infectious disease attacked the body in numerous ways ranging from the mild and temporary to permanent damage to the nerves and muscles in a small but significant number of cases.

Muscular damage usually involved the leg muscles but could also affect the nerves and muscles in the arms, neck and diaphragm, which is essential for breathing.

Polio could cause paralysis and in some cases death.

The virus favoured overcrowded and unsanitary environments, so the disease affected a high proportion of poor children.

One of the most famous people to be disabled by polio was the actor and singer Ian Dury.

I recently visited the Royal Victoria Chapel at Netley where an iron lung was on display.

This mechanical respirator enabled a person to breathe in a normal manner when muscle control was lost for which polio was often the cause.

When I mentioned this to my grandmother she replied: “Yes, my father thought they were a great invention, so he ordered quite a few.”

My Great Grandfather left an important mark in public health for according to my Grandmother, Mrs Jean Petre (née Menzies); it was in his capacity as Medical Officer of Health at the London County Council that he insisted on purchasing the first “iron lung”.

My great grandfather was Sir Frederick Menzies who was raised in Wales and received his medical education at the University of Edinburgh as well as in Austria and Germany.

I had heard family stories about David Lloyd George, who was related to my Great Grandmother Lady Harriet Menzies (née Lloyd), and Sir Alexander Fleming who used penicillin to cure boils on my uncle’s knees in the 1940s.

I recently discovered that my great grandfather was a demonstrator in public health at University College, London and that he introduced a medical scheme for London schools and the screening of the population for tuberculosis.

King George V awarded him a knighthood in 1932.

In 1937 he was the first Medical Officer of Health to be appointed Honorary Physician to the King.

Philip Drinker and Louie Shaw developed the “iron lung” in Boston in 1928.

Netley Hospital had one in Ward E, which can now be seen at the restored Royal Victoria Chapel. It is an original American Drinker Respirator.

The UK’s first iron lung was designed in 1933 by Robert Henderson, an Aberdeen doctor and in 1937 the Australian brothers Edward and Donald Both produced a more affordable version made from plywood which attracted the attention of William Morris (Lord Nuffield), a British motor manufacturer and philanthropist.

Nuffield financed the production of approximately 1700 machines at his car factory and donated them to hospitals throughout Britain and the Empire. By the early 1950s, there were more than 700 Both-Nuffield iron lungs in the United Kingdom.

Rows of iron lungs filled hospital wards at the height of the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s. The time spent in an iron lung could be days, weeks and sometimes years.

A patient might recover to breathe naturally, or the damage could be permanent. Some patients stayed in iron lungs for the remainder of their lives.

While most people were only mildly affected by the polio virus its effects were devastating for many others.

In 1952 Dr Jonas Salk developed the first effective vaccine against the disease.

Ten years later, Britain switched to Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine. The iron lung was finally made redundant through vaccination.

There were 707 acute cases and 79 deaths from polio in 1961. Since 1982 there have been no domestically acquired cases.

Thanks to the legacy of three outstanding Scottish and American doctors/researchers, the entrepreneurship of the Both brothers and William Morris together with my great grandfather’s inspirational leadership and readily available free vaccinations, we are virtually clear of the scourge of polio in Britain.

By Katie Belo Dos Santos, tour guide with .