Feature Stories

How Bananas Caused Polio

Recently found out why I’ve always loved bananas. I was reminiscing with an older sister about past epidemics we’ve lived through. Before SARS, COVID-19, and the Hong Kong Flu, the big one was Polio. The fear of it touched every family.

It was made even scarier because our parents had been raised by the survivors of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Our grandparents brought to the polio scare a deep-rooted terror of contagious diseases, so there was no minimizing or questioning the seriousness of the crisis. All believed it was real and, even as small children, we were knew something was terribly wrong.

Everyone avoided public gatherings. Theaters, schools, and swimming pools were closed. No one drank from water fountains. Do you recall hearing grown-ups talking in hushed whispers about someone being placed in thing called an iron lung? Or seeing people (even kids) with steel leg-braces, struggling to walk?

No one understood how the virus spread, so everything was suspect. We were kept scrupulously clean, wearing fresh cloths daily. People kept to their homes and worried about everything. It is this level fear that brings us back to bananas.

As we discussed my sister’s memories of polio, the one that made us both laugh was bananas. Turns out our dad believed bananas caused polio, so we were forbidden to eat them. For over a year, they were not allowed into our house or mouths.  That early deprivation elevated bananas to my favorite fruit.

Why bananas? Rumor had it that people coming down with polio had eaten one within a day or two of showing symptoms. Of course, children had probably drunk milk and adults had enjoyed their coffee during the same period, but it was bananas that took the rap.

Don’t know if the banana theory was unique to our household, neighborhood, or community. I haven’t ever heard about it anywhere else. While writing this column I Googled, “Did people think bananas caused polio?”  I didn’t come up with anything except an article about the suspicion that ice cream caused polio. Wow, am I glad my dad didn’t hear that one! Obviously, things could have been a lot worse than I realized.

So, that’s my story of growing up during a health crisis. We will have to wait twenty or thirty years to learn what stands out in the memories of kids today as we hunker down during the coronavirus pandemic. But right now I’ve got to go out and try to buy some toilet paper.

Scott Funk lives, works, and writes (and gardens) in Vermont.  His Boomer Funk columns are available at VermontFunk.com, as are his blogs and archived Aging in Place columns.

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