Chapter: Challenges and Hardships

Polio Doll - Bertha Buydens Matthys

"Comfort for a little girl"
1912 doll for 2-year old girl sent alone to Belgium for polio treatments (circa) 1912 "polio" doll


During childhood everyone has that special companion; a favourite toy, stuffed animal or doll; a source of comfort and protection when we are feeling scared or sad. Bertha Buydens Matthys had such a keepsake, a doll she was given at two years of age. It would travel with her from Manitoba to Europe and back again.

Born in St. Alphonse, Manitoba in 1908, Bertha contracted polio at three months of age. At two years of age she was taken to Belgium for specialized treatment. The doll was given to her by her uncle, Van Oycke, because she was “such a good girl”. After two years of treatment the specialist said, “Take Bertha home and love her. We cannot cure her right leg. The King has polio also and cannot move his arm. We cannot cure him either."

There is, however, no record of the King of Belgium ever having polio. The doctor may have said this in order to provide comfort or perhaps over the years of telling the story details were changed or lost. In a way it doesn’t really matter about the details.

The doll is a reminder that modern medicine has made it easy to forget how far we have come in preventing or treating diseases in a relatively short amount of time. Vaccinations have eliminated polio from Canada and most of the world, but it had a devastating effect on Manitoba in the first half of the 20th century. The disease was especially feared as polio targeted young children and could cause them to be paralyzed.

See also Iron Lung