Barbara Greenlee Toomer: A World Without Barriers

Did you know that September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month? Spinal cord injuries affect everyone differently, and though some SCI survivors are in wheelchairs, many others (such as myself) live with “invisible disabilities” that still impact their daily lives. Thanks to advances in medicine and awareness, though, people with disabilities have more opportunities now than at any other time in history. One of the people who helped make that possible was polio survivor Barbara Greenlee Toomer.

In 2017, there were only 22 reported cases of polio anywhere in the world, thanks to global efforts to eradicate the disease, but in the 1950s, tens of thousands of children contracted polio in the United States alone each year, killing thousands and leaving many more paralyzed. In 1955, when doctors announced that they had created a successful polio vaccine, church bells rang across America in celebration.

Though the vaccine quickly caused a drop in polio infections and deaths, the vaccine was in short supply at first and was only available to the most vulnerable populations: mainly children. That was why, when Barbara Greenlee Toomer’s first child was born in 1956, the infant received a polio vaccine and Barbara did not.

Not long after, polio swept through the military base where Barbara lived. Her child remained healthy, but Barbara came down with horrible back and head pain. She was able to walk into the hospital, but she would never walk back out. Polio left her paralyzed, and she saw family and friends turn away from her and her disability.

But Barbara did not let polio slow her down. She did not just want to live with her disability, she wanted to be a person with a disability who fully lived. And she wanted the same for other people with disabilities as well. In fact, she was arrested dozens of times while protesting for disability rights, wheelchair and all. She even chained herself to buses that did not accommodate wheelchairs. To find out more about how Barbara Greenlee Toomer championed fair treatment for everyone, regardless of their abilities, read Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians, available for preorder now on Amazon.

Below: Children with polio-induced paralysis learning to walk with leg braces.


Suffering from “the spleen”

My blogosphere silence lately has been due to the extreme busy-ness of conferences, Pitch Wars, and my own editing, but I found this interesting tidbit while researching Renaissance life and health, and I had to post about it. I’m reading the letters of a seventeenth century woman who complains of suffering from “the spleen.” Her symptoms sound like depression and/or general anxiety disorder, so I did a bit of research and, sure enough, “the spleen” was the sixteenth century catch-all term for those and related mental health problems.

This was interesting to me because of the similarities and differences between mental health then and now. The symptoms were recognizable: moodiness, withdrawal, long-lasting “blue” feelings, irritability, trouble sleeping and/or oversleeping, and general nervousness or worry. Mental illness is not a phenomenon belonging only to the modern world.

One thing that was refreshing was the general Renaissance medical consensus that mental illness had a physical component: it was called “the spleen” because Renaissance doctors believed the symptoms were caused by an imbalance of the “four humors” that made up the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) caused, in this instance, by trouble in the spleen. With some modern folks claiming that mental illness and other hard-to-quantify health problems are just in the sufferers’ imaginations, it’s good to remember that it was recognized centuries ago as a real, physical health issue resulting from chemical imbalances in the body (even if early physicians weren’t clear on what those chemicals were).

On the disappointing side, there was a stigma even then against “the spleen” as being a woman’s illness. Though my seventeenth-century letter writer recognized some of the symptoms in the man she was writing to, she hesitated to “accuse” him of suffering from a “feminine” disease. This attitude persists today, making men less likely to seek help for their mental health issues. I also suspect it’s why mental illness came to be taken less seriously as a medical issue–as later generations focused on women’s perceived weaknesses, they began more and more to see mental illness as just a sign that women can’t handle much of anything (studying serious topics, thinking about politics, eating meat…), leaving countless men and women to suffer in silence (or in horrendous institutions for hiding away the mentally ill) until the recent push for reconsidering our understanding of mental illness.

I think mental illness is a topic we should shed more light on and continue to de-stigmatize, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in my upcoming NaNoWriMo writing project.

A Victorian woman institutionalized for mental illness. A better understanding of mental health might have freed her from her prison-like existence. From the UK National Media Museum.