A few months ago, we ran a story about the early polio vaccinations given to local school children in the 1950s. As a result, local community members came in to share their own stories about polio, the vaccinations and treatment during the early 20th century. Among these stories was the story of Ralph Settgast Jr. Now living in Chapman, Ralph was born and raised in Geary County, where he contracted polio at the age of eight.
Ralph’s grandfather came from Germany and settled in Clarks Creek in the late 1800s. There have been Settgasts in the area ever since. Ralph was born on Clarks Creeks, at the big stone house on the curve, in 1931. Ralph’s mother died at the age of 23 in 1936, leaving him and a sister. But on July 3, 1940, his father remarried a woman named Clara—“Mother Clara”—who had a child of her own. Eventually seven more children were added to the family and Mother Clara, who was born with the bottom half of her left arm missing, raised all ten children. In Ralph’s words “that’s some kind of woman.”
In August of 1940, just one month after Ralph’s father and stepmother were married, Ralph contracted polio. Then known as Infantile Paralysis, polio was a dangerous illness for children that often killed or paralyzed the victims.
Just before Ralph contracted the dreaded disease, he fell off the lumber wagon while helping his father and uncles load wood to be sawed. His parents always blamed that fall for the polio, though the doctor said it wasn’t possible. While we now know that polio is caused by a virus that affects the nervous system, in the 1940s, the cause was unknown and childhood traumas were often blamed for the sudden onset of the illness.
While speaking to me, Ralph recalled another boy who lived down the road from him who was about 6 or 7 when he also contracted polio. And, just a little while before he had fallen on a corn stalk and lost an eye, and then he contracted polio and was paralyzed from the neck down. Ralph seemed to remember that the boy’s mother said he lived until the mid-50s.
At this, Ralph decided he was one of the lucky ones. He held up his right hand, which he has little control over and said, “I only got a bad hand out of it, so I guess I was lucky.” After contracting polio, Ralph was sent to see a specialist in Topeka. He was only eight years old, and when the doctor told him he would need surgery on his hand, he was scared. So, the doctor told him, “Well, we can cut your hand off right here at the elbow. Then we’ll fix your hand and you can come back and sew it on.” That didn’t sound like such a good idea to Ralph though, so he let them operate.
And his recovery must have been smooth, Ralph said, because he was back at school that September.
Thank you to Ralph Settgast Jr., for stopping in to share this story. We love adding new histories to our archives. If you are interested in learning more about early 20th century medicine in Geary County, stop into the museum to see our exhibit Healing Geary County! Open Tuesday-Sunday 1pm-4pm, the medical exhibit will run to Spring 2015.