A socio-cultural exploration at the lives of polio survivors...

The Polio Monologues

...through the interdisciplinary lens of narrative and performance
Pilot project

For many developed countries, including the United Kingdom, poliomyelitis is almost a forgotten memory due to the introduction and implementation of mass vaccination programmes in the late 50s and early 60s. However, the reality remains that it had major social, cultural, psycho-emotional and physical impacts for generations of children, families and communities during the 20th Century (Smallman-Raynor & Cliff, 2006; McKenzie, 2000). Moreover, it continues to make an impact in the 21st Century, as many people who contracted paralytic polio in childhood may develop functional deterioration (Post-Polio Syndrome or PPS) in later adulthood. According to the National Service Framework for Long-term Conditions (2005) there are an estimated 120,000 ‘polio survivors’ living in Britain today.

Much has been written about polio in America (e.g. Oshinsky, 2005; Sass, 1996; Silver and Wilson, 2007), but this is culturally, socially and medically different from what happened in Britain after the rise of the National Health Service. To date there has been no systematic, thorough reconstruction of its history. Further, polio survivors are an ‘endangered species’ as polio approaches global eradication. Thus it is important and timely to capture and preserve their lived experiences in order to offer new knowledge of the individual and collective consequences of poliomyelitis and PPS in a changing British society.

The Project


The two-stage pilot project, funded by the Adams Smith Research Fund, aimed to:

  • conduct life history interviews with 5 survivors of childhood polio
  •  develop theatre workshops to experiment with new ways to communicate the self-told stories to non-academic audiences in creative ways


The first stage of the project involved conducting 5 life history interviews with British polio survivors (men and women) to explore the social, cultural and psycho-emotional effects of the disease for the individual, family and communities across their lifecourse, since contracting polio as a child. The life stories also uncovered new knowledge about the impact of resources, treatments and social care provisions on private lives and changing bodies of polio survivors as the moved through biographical and historical time i.e. 1940s/50s to 2015.

With the permission of the polio survivors, the self-told stories were used to develop theatre workshops to experiment with new ways to communicate the polio stories to non-academic audiences in creative ways. This was done in partnership with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company (the largest disabled-led theatre company in Scotland, using an innovative verbatim technique called Recorded Delivery to reinterpret raw life histories into dramaturgical materials, with voice and movement. The resource, Polio Monologues: Exploration of Polio Survivors’ Lives through Recorded Delivery, is available on YouTube.

Future Work

A large grant application has been submitted to the Leverhulme Trust to explore the socio-cultural histories of polio survivors in Britain. A smaller application has been submitted to  Impact Acceleration Fund (IAA) to fund further collaborative work with the Birds of Paradise team to devise and perform a lively, exciting and informative piece of musical theatre, Polio Monologues, so 21st Century audiences can learn about the socio-cultural effects of one of the most feared disease of the 20th Century (e.g. on attitudes, relationships and expectations).


  • Dr Sonali Shah (Centre for Disability Research)
  • Prof Malcolm A Nicolson (Centre for History of Medicine) 


January - August 2015


Adam Smith Research Fund