Exercise chair for patients with poliomyelitis, made by Rossel, Schwarz and Co., Wiesbaden, Germany, 1901 to 1905
Poliomyelitis, sometimes referred to historically as infantile paralysis, but better known as polio is an acute viral disease. It is capable of causing severe and permanent disabilities, and occasionally death. This exercise chair is evidence of one individual’s encounter with polio. It was used for many years by a woman who had caught the disease in her youth in 1924, and later donated to the Science Museum by her daughters. This very rare and unusual chair was produced by specialist manufacturers Rossel, Schwarz and Company of Wiesbaden, Germany. Once seated, the users feet were strapped to the paddle-like peddles. Moving them up or down turned the two wheels, which could be adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of force needed to move them – not unlike the principle behind modern cycling machines.
Polio was a disease that had generally existed at low endemic levels within the human population for thousands of years. However, from the end of the 19th century until the middle years of the 20th, major epidemics of the disease periodically broke out in many parts of the world. Young children were particularly vulnerable and many of those that survived their illness where, like the user of this chair, were left with lifelong disabilities. The ongoing epidemics encouraged the development of a vaccine. This was achieved during the 1950s, after which the number of cases reported worldwide began to fall dramatically.