Two years ago, I took a documentary course at the University of Pittsburgh. Back in 2005, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the release of the polio vaccine, some folks at Pitt led by Carl Kurlander started to collect a video record about the cure for polio.
When I took the course in early 2008, Carl suggested someone in the class might want to research Jessie Wright. I volunteered, and I’m glad I did. Jessie Wright was the unsung hero of polio treatment in the Pittsburgh area. I hope a little of my research made the cut, but I know they wound up with a shorter documentary than they were planning two years ago.
Here’s a short look at Dr. Jessie Wright:
Born in England, Jessie Wright immigrated to the Pittsburgh area with her parents in 1906. Jessie was interested in medicine, partially due to having a friend handicapped by polio. Jessie learned about physiotherapy by observing the patients and helping with their therapy at the D. T. Watson home. She spent the next few years learning and practicing physiotherapy, while saving the money to attend college.
Even before attending college, Jessie studied skeletons and observed a dissection. She started taking premedical courses part time at the University of Pittsburgh in about 1921, and took several special courses in physiotherapy at the Harvard Medical School. Since Jessie was working, it took her many years to earn her Bachelor of Science (awarded in 1932) and her Doctor of Medicine (awarded in 1934).
Dr. Wright was later named the director of the D. T. Watson Home and taught orthopedics at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to her medical, administrative and teaching duties, Dr. Wright developed several orthopedic devices and refined several others. While she worked on braces and splints, and she also adapted an existing device for especially for polio patients―the “fast-rocking” bed. This bed helped many polio patients to breathe on their own and freed them from the iron lung.
By 1947, she was the Chairman of the Joint Orthopedic Nursing Advisory Council and was active in the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. She worked with leaders in the polio field, including Jonas Salk and Basil O’Connor and built a reputation for herself and the D. T. Watson Home that went far beyond Pittsburgh. When he needed to test the vaccine on people who had already had polio, he tested patients at D. T. Watson.
But even while the vaccine was being tested and appeared to be working, Dr. Wright had to return her focus to rehabilitating polio patients. “The year 1952 was the worst polio year on record, with more than 57,000 cases nationwide.” Hundreds of children from across Pennsylvania arrived at the D. T. Watson Home for therapy. The therapy was surprisingly creative and patient-led. The important thing was to get the patient to the highest-level of self-sufficiency possible.
After forty-five years of near tireless work in the cause of improving the lives of people with orthopedic diseases, Dr. Wright suffered a coronary in 1966 that required her to retire from her professional activities, including running the D. T. Watson Home. She retired to seaside Maryland, where she enjoyed swimming, fishing and boating. Dr. Jessie Wright died September 6, 1970. A tree was planted in her honor at the D. T. Watson Home, and an annual award for Physical Therapy was named for her at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. Both were extremely appropriate honors for a woman who worked so hard to professionalize physical therapy and loved the outdoors.