Brave fighter in the forefront of the polio epidemic: Mary Browning, public health nurse 

Bennie Sue Slusher Sleadd | Photo contributed

Soon after Dr. Jonas Salk made his famous discovery in 1955, a vaccine that would basically eradicate polio from our midst, this miracle potion slowly made its way to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Knox County's most well known public health nurse, Nurse Mary Browning began her rounds to every elementary school in Knox County. Her mission was to vaccinate every elementary school age child against the scourge of polio.

Nurse Browning was employed by the Knox County Health Department from August 1943 to March 1968. She was a determined no nonsense nurse. Wherever she appeared, this austere hard working woman had one job to do, and that was to immunize every child in Knox County against the terribly ravaging contagious childhood diseases: whooping cough, diphtheria, small pox, tetanus, and polio. She would appear early in the morning unannounced to the county and city school children. Upon hearing of Nurse Browning's presence, many of the youngest children would start crying hysterically. A few were known to have fainted.

After setting up her records along with her "shot kit," on a nearby table, Mrs. Browning would start to work. After dipping her cotton ball in alcohol, she methodically reached for the next child, swabbing his/her arm, roughly injecting each student with the serum. It was noted that a few older children were seen jumping out of open windows fleeing to safety. In several of Nurse Browning's student records she had written on the designated date for the vaccination, "Ran away from school."

Bennie Sue Slusher Sleadd tells this story of one of Mrs. Browning visits:

Our teacher Laura Carnes, who happened to be my neighbor never mentioned when she was coming till she was in the door. One time I ran off, and I never looked back to see if anyone was following me because I was so scared. I ran a mile to my house. When I got there I was so out of breath, my mom felt sorry for me and she didn't make me go back. She said I could wait until the next time. I was due for a booster and they hurt really badly.

I was at Carnes my first five years. When Mrs. Browning came, we were all scared to death. She sat up front with all of her things laid out on a white cloth. She gave us shots with a huge metal syringe. I remember it had a big ball on it, and when she drew the vaccine from the bottle she would stick it under the table and squirt it on the floor. We would be crying and begging not to get a shot. Mrs. Browning was all business, no coddling. She called our names, we got in line, she looked at our records to see what we were supposed to have, and that's what we got. She was an expert she did it really quickly.

I would like to thank Bennie Sue Slusher Sleadd.

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