Kevin Norbury in a buggy built for him as a child.

Andrew Rule

Polio and losing the use of
a hand did not stop Kevin
Norbury
ANDREW RULE, Sunday Herald Sun

March 12, 2016 7:00am
Subscriber only

IN real life, you never know when the horror story is going to start. There’s no
spooky mood music, often not a dark cloud in sight, when the bad thing
happens.
For a little country kid called Kevin, life as he knew it changed forever one long-ago
weekend. He woke up on a Saturday morning with a stiff neck that got worse by the
hour.
By Sunday night he couldn’t hold a piece of food in either hand. His parents carried him
to bed. Next morning he couldn’t move his right arm at all. By the time they got him to a
doctor that arm was completely paralysed and his left was weakening fast. By dark he
was in Ballarat Hospital, struggling for his life.
It was 1951 and Kevin Norbury was one of thousands of Australian children struck down
by the last epidemic of “polio” — full name poliomyelitis, also known as “infantile
paralysis”. He was just 10, and there was every chance he would die. Or, worse, that he
would be strapped into an iron lung respirator forever.
His parents did not go home that night. They drove around Ballarat until dawn “in a sort
of daze”, his sister would recall.
At sunrise his father pulled up outside the house of a childhood friend, went inside and
wept. Jim Norbury was a truck driver and no one in the family had ever seen him cry
before.
The struggle lasted three days.
The doctor in charge had him strapped into an iron lung but instructed the nurses not to
switch it on unless the boy absolutely could not breathe.
The man who had seen so many children die — or be condemned to a sort of living
death — feared that once the respirator took over, Kevin might never again be able to
breathe without it.

Kevin Norbury recovering from polio.
The curly haired kid would spend nearly two years in Ward 9 at Ballarat. He had his 11th
birthday there but none of his school friends came in from his home district of Lexton.
They were frightened of catching polio.
“Nothing was the same anymore,” Kevin would write more than 60 years later, tapping
out the words one handed the way he has in a long and quietly remarkable working life.
Like many reporters, he is a two-fingered typist but, he jokes, with one difference: the
two fingers are on the same hand. The other one doesn’t work.
That’s Kevin — cheerful and unpretentious. Many of us in the news business have
worked with him.
He worked for this paper’s forebears the Sun News-Pictorial and the Sunday Press —
among others — before a stint subediting on The Times in London.
Before that he worked at the Geelong Advertiser and the Colac Herald, all the way back
to his first job as a proof reader at the Ballarat Courier, where he slaved until the kindly
boss of a one-man newspaper in a one-horse town took a punt on a one-armed
reporter.

Norbury has dedicated his memoir The Improbable Reporter to the memory of Ron Roe,
the owner-editor and photographer of the Nhill Free Press. It’s a nice touch in a
homespun tale that’s moving but never sentimental or preachy.
It is a survivor’s story but no “misery memoir”. Kevin’s deft hand turns a tale of hardship
into one of endurance and hope. He doesn’t whinge, just tells what it was like to pull
through the catastrophe that put him in the Yooralla home for the disabled for years and
in a splint until he was 21. But it didn’t stop him from forging a fortunate life.
This is the country boy who worked out that if he borrowed his sister’s little bike, he
could perch on the luggage rack at the back and steer with his good hand. And who
rigged up a portable prop with a forked stick so he could use a .22 rifle to pot rabbits.
And who carried a matchbox full of lead to weigh down his notebook as he wrote. He not
only got his driver’s licence in a manual vehicle but ended up the most unlikely motoring
writer ever to pilot a $6 million concept car at a Mercedes Benz symposium.
He never thought he couldn’t do something if he turned his mind to it.
He couldn’t fix his injury and doesn’t dwell on the past. But some on both sides of the
vaccination debate might be interested in a reference he makes to the Health
Department polio expert who treated him in Ballarat in 1951 and 1952.
Dr Bertram McCloskey no doubt saved many lives, maybe even Norbury’s own. But it
wasn’t until the adult Norbury dug up a report McCloskey published in a medical journal
that he heard of a likely link between the 1950s polio epidemic and inoculation against
whooping cough and the deadly disease diphtheria, which once killed tens of thousands
of children a year.
“His report in The Lancet makes disturbing reading, even today,” Norbury begins.
McCloskey had noticed that 211 of 340 polio cases in Victoria in six months were
children who had been inoculated — and that the more recent the injection, the more
likely it was they had developed polio.
Even more pointedly, the polio paralysis was more severe in whichever arm the child
had recently had injected.

Kevin Norbury today.
This rang alarm bells with Norbury. Because of problems with the primitive syringes then
used, he’d been given a double dose of diphtheria vaccine, he says, only weeks before
the paralysis hit him.
The veteran journalist would ferret out facts hidden from his parents and others when he
was a child.
He discovered that McCloskey had reported his misgivings to the Victorian chief health
officer, the heads of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and the head of the
Infectious Diseases Hospital.
They agreed there was a link between school injections and polio. In fact, theMedical
Journal of Australia advised against injecting school-aged children in areas where polio
was breaking out.
Experts apparently suspected that children’s immune systems were temporarily
weakened by the vaccines, making them vulnerable to polio.
So what happened? Because of fears of a backlash against immunisation, the
authorities buried McCloskey’s report. People in high places thought that the increased

risk of hundreds of children getting polio was better than postponing diphtheria
vaccinations.
Norbury lived with the result of that decision, taken in secret the year before he was
paralysed. But he didn’t let it make him bitter — only better.
He knew he had to try harder than others, so he did, leading to the long and productive
life outlined in his book. Literature it ain’t.
But it is a touchingly Australian story about an ordinary man who overcame
extraordinary odds. Single-handed, but not alone.
andrew.rule@news.com.au