Parallels to the past

Lockdown Learning in 1947

When a polio epidemic struck New Zealand in the late 1940s, children all around the country were forced to learn from home.

Graeme Woodfield, May 2020.
Graeme Woodfield had just started high school when the polio epidemic reached his South Island community. Here he recounts what life was like as a teenager living in the midst of an infectious disease outbreak that stopped him and his friends going to school.
The Arowhenua Hotel in South Canterbury, 1910. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref 1/2-008596-F.

“In 1947 I was a young boy living in the very small country settlement of Arowhenua in South Canterbury.

"Several people had been sent that year to Timaru Hospital with a diagnosis of infantile paralysis or Polio.

"We were made very aware of the dangers of infection; stories of the 'iron lung' were prevalent and we were all scared of being infected and paralysed."

Has Polio affected you?
A child recovers in an iron lung, designed to help support breathing. Photo Boston City Archives (CC BY 2.0).

“At that time, it was thought that too much sunshine could be a cause of Polio, so we were discouraged from vigorous exercise and given large floppy hats to protect the back of our necks. It was a very hot summer that year.

“We were advised that schools would not re-open in 1948. This was to be my first year at Temuka District High School, but we would have to work from home for at least the first term, and a list of books was given to us."

Painting of a fantail by polio sufferer Jim Driver published in the Evening Post, 1959. Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1959/2098-F.

“For some subjects this was fine (English, French) but for others there was a real problem. Algebra and Geometry were foreign subjects to me. My parents did not understand the work and I recall being bewildered by the information in the books. It was a struggle.

"During this time we had almost no contact with the school and as we did not have a telephone, we were very isolated."

"While there were some school radio programmes, we took little notice of these; we were too busy seeing our friends even though it meant cycling miles into Temuka. We were though, discouraged from doing this and told to avoid crowds, but that is as far as it went. I think we all regarded the shut-down of schools as just a great opportunity to extend our summer holidays."

“The only ‘preventive’ treatment my parents instituted was to dose my sister and I with large spoonfuls of malt, heavily fortified with cod liver oil. We hated the taste; we didn’t mind the malt but the fishy oil was too much for us. Altogether we had a great holiday, although the concern of our parents was evident. We were closely watched for any sign of sickness and sent to bed with even minor illnesses."

Graeme Woodfield, May 2020