By Loraine Gibney
The 20th century saw many advancements in the medical field; however, many people in Greenwich Village, New York experienced much loss and calamity. In the West Village, the Northern Dispensary was established for the treatment of the poor in 1791 in the neighborhood of City Hall. As the West Village grew the Northern Dispensary could not adequately treat the emerging population of immigrants. In Greenwich Village, the peculiar triangle of land formed where the y-shaped Waverly Place runs into Grove and Christopher Street.
During the epidemic of polio (infantile paralysis) in 1916, the city placed a stipulation on the property: it was to be used solely for the purpose of treating the indigent who could not afford hospital care. To prevent the pandemic of polio, citizens with polio were prohibited on the streets, and public venues of Greenwich Village.
My family lived on Perry Street, my grandparents, Jeanette O’Brien and Stanley Gibney had twelve children. The first born was Raymond Gibney, and he developed polio at age two years old. During the earlier years of the polio epidemic, the virus took the lives of 6,000 Villagers, and left thousands more paralyzed, doomed to life in a wheelchair, leg braces, or crutches.
In the literary classic, A Christmas Story, written by Charles Dickens, one of the main characters, Tiny Tim, was maligned with polio. Tiny Tim is characterized as a young boy with leg braces, and crutches. In England the polio epidemic took the lives of many adults and children.
Raymond Gibney was born August 15, 1914. He was a beautiful fair–haired boy with reddish hair, and freckles. Ray was a sick little boy who had contracted polio in childhood, and was made to wear cumbersome metal braces with leather straps, and awkward wooden crutches. Even though Ray was a sickly child, his parents adored him; he was the sunshine of their lives. As parents of a child with infantile paralysis, the Gibneys could not bring Ray outside in public places; it was prohibited. John Purroy Mitchel, the Mayor of New York City, enforced health laws and prohibited children and adults with polio to mingle in public with healthy citizens.
The medical term for polio is poliomyelitis, which means “grey marrow” in Greek. The Greek name is logical since it is the effects of poliomyelitis virus on the spinal cord that causes the characteristic paralysis of this disease.
Franklin Roosevelt was adored by the people of the West Village. During his time living in the West Village, he developed polio at age thirty-six, and became paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Needless to say, Franklin was determined to overcome his handicap. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor, his second cousin, were beloved by West Village people. For so many sick children and adults, the Roosevelts were heroes for a United States at war with Europe. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, my grandfather Stanley Gibney worked to have him elected to the presidency. My grandparents adored Franklin because he never allowed his illness to impede his life. Their son was given a true role model; Mr. Roosevelt set the new standard for the disabled. Of course, Raymond did not go into politics; however, he worked for Bethlehem Steel, and lived a normal life. Raymond Gibney was married to Teresa Ciosi at Guadalupe Church on 14th Street. As a married couple, they lived on Bedford Street with their four children: Raymond, Jackie, Katherine, and Louis.