Amesbury woman recalls era of polio, hardship

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoJoan Gessner of Amesbury likens the recent coronavirus scare to the polio epidemic that lasted into the 1950s.

AMESBURY — Joan Gessner has seen a lot in her 82 years on this planet and has a simple message for everyone who thinks the current COVID-19 crisis is unique.

“Stop complaining,” Gessner said. “People aren’t accepting the travesty of what is going on today and the danger.”

Gessner is a native of Ohio and was living there during the combined challenges of World War II in the 1940s and the polio epidemic that began in 1916 and continued throughout the 1950s.

“You can go outside but you couldn’t go out of your yard, this was against the law,” Gessner said. “There was a streetcar that would stop in front of our house and I would wave to him. That was my joy of the day.”

Gessner went on to tell tales about living through a difficult World War II, which she said helped to unify Americans.

“The air raid warden would come around at night and make sure there were no lights in the house,” Gessner said. “If there were lights on, you were given a fine. People were serious back then and there are no ‘dislikes’ (on Facebook.) We need that unity again.”

She said the current coronavirus crisis needs to be put into perspective by many of today’s social media-savvy Americans.

“People don’t accept the danger involved here,” Gessner said. “They don’t have any idea of what it is and that’s why they are complaining. I have experienced this for five years, during the entire war. Then, we had the polio, too.”

Gessner said living through World War II and the polio epidemic have given her a historic point of view when it comes to the current situation.

“When someone complains about this right now, I just want to slap them,” Gessner said. “Because they have no idea. No idea.”

Things may seem dark right now but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Gessner.

“We can’t give up hope,” Gessner said. “I never thought it would come to this, but I am willing to accept it.”

Gessner lives on East Greenwood Street, where the artist also operates Gessner Studio out of her home.

While the coronavirus crisis has kept her students away, new methods of teaching have already been worked out, she said.

“One of my students told me I needed to look at her painting,” Gessner said. “So I sat on the front step and she showed it to me.”

The mother of three said she has gone on to have a full life and is lucky that she can paint and enjoys jigsaw puzzles, but been cutting back on her trips to the grocery store.

“I’m as healthy as a horse, I don’t take anything but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t get sick because of this,” Gessner said. “This is not like any flu they have ever seen. This is not like getting sick for two or three days and being better. This is running its course for a couple of weeks. I’ve never seen anything like this since I was a kid.”

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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