WHEN POLIO STRUCK AN INUIT COMMUNITY IN THE LATE 1940S, IT LED TO A TRAGEDY THAT SHOCKED THE COUNTRY.
When polio struck an Inuit community in the late 1940s, it led to a tragedy that shocked the country.
CONSTANCE “CONNIE” BEATTIE WAS the only real choice to answer a distress call issued by the Department of Indian Affairs in late March 1949. A physiotherapist was urgently needed to help treat Inuit polio victims in the Arctic settlement of Chesterfield Inlet on the west coast of Hudson Bay. It would be an unprecedented mission in response to an unprecedented and especially tragic polio epidemic that struck during the winter of 1948–49, seemingly seeking out a large proportion of the immunologically vulnerable Inuit population. There were about 275 Inuit, along with 25 non-Inuit, living in and around the outpost.
Connie was twenty-four years old. She grew up in Brockville, Ontario, and graduated from the University of Toronto’s physiotherapy program in 1945 before serving in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. In 1948 she joined Toronto East General Hospital’s physiotherapy department and very quickly became its head. She was also president of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, which was where officials from the Department of Indian Affairs started their search.
Connie wasted little time in volunteering her services. “It will be a thrilling adventure and a chance to help those unfortu-