January 19, 2018

Chesterfield Inlet, 1949, and the Ecology of Epidemic Polio

Fig5Piper-550 by Liza Piper

Environmental historians have yet to engage with the history of polio. This article uses a 1949 outbreak that occurred during the global height of polio epidemics but in an unexpected place, Chesterfield Inlet in the Canadian Arctic, to examine the influence of Arctic environments on midcentury biomedical research into poliomyelitis. This influence arose in part because of the historical role of such environments and their indigenous inhabitants as laboratories and research subjects, respectively. This influence also reflected the ongoing importance of environmental etiologies to the study of polio, specifically through the significance of epidemiological and immunological research. The article explores the role of environment in the transmission and perception of the disease in Chesterfield Inlet, as well as the research into climate, food, and immunity that arose out of the epidemic. The Chesterfield Inlet outbreak reveals the significance of the historical colonization of Arctic peoples and environments in shaping the course of the epidemic and the medical knowledge that was created in response to it. The outbreak also demonstrates the ecological perspective shaping an understanding of immunity to polioviruses and encouraging the development of a vaccine.

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