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Cool Things - Leg Brace

Leg brace and  shoe worn by Betty Funk

This brace belonged to a woman stricken with polio as a toddler.

Poliomyelitis was a feared disease that could cripple or kill those it infected. Polio typically affected children, but adults were not immune.

Betty Jean Funk was a healthy child from Oneida, Kansas. Born in 1923, she had just learned to walk when she contracted polio. Although Betty survived the disease, for the rest of her life she could walk only with the assistance of braces. As a teenager she was admitted to Shriner's Hospital, where doctors fused her left leg at the knee. This procedure made it possible for her to use only one leg brace.

The brace Betty wore later in life is pictured here along with her left shoe (view the brace in a bent position). Both shoes were specially made to fit her feet. Betty wore this brace for a long time, as indicated by the numerous repairs to the leather. She worked at a garment manufacturer in Kansas City, Missouri, prior to getting married. On icy days, she would strap cleats on her shoes to get better traction on her way to work.

During the first half of the 20th century, many Kansas children contracted polio during the summer months. The Kansas State Board of Health noted that 1952 had the highest number of polio cases ever reported. That year 1,718 individuals came down with the disease; of those, about 70 died. Based on Kansas' population at the time, that was almost one case of polio per 1,000 people.

Betty is the second child from the left, middle row, in this photo of her Oneida grade school class. She is the only one leaning on a crutch. Her leg brace is visible just below the hemline of her dress. Two years later, about 6,000 Kansas second-graders and children from 43 other states took part in a field trial for a polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. The results of the trial were announced on April 12, 1955--the vaccine worked!

Polio vaccine was quickly administered to children in the at-risk age group, and the Kansas State Board of Health reported only 271 cases (with fewer than ten deaths) in 1955. The incidence of polio continued to lessen dramatically over the next few decades until the last case was reported in the United States in 1979.

This brace, shoe, and pair of cleats are in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History. The museum also has an iron lung used to treat polio patients. Learn more about polio by visiting the Smithsonian Institution's on-line exhibit, Whatever Happened to Polio.

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Entry: Cool Things - Leg Brace

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: April 2006

Date Modified: November 2010

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.