Polio Australia’s Board Member and volunteer National Communications Coordinator, Gary Newton (who featured in the Summer 2016 edition of Polio Oz News), just happens to live in the same area as Florence and her nephew. So, on Monday the 13th of February, Gary and Winnie Teo, Coordinator of the Geelong Polio Support Group, paid Florence a visit on behalf of Polio Australia, to present her with a plaque acknowledging Florence Jean Barber as “Australia’s Longest Living Polio Survivor”. Winnie also gave Florence a lovely flower arrangement from the Geelong Polio Support Group.
There may be a longer-lived polio survivor somewhere in Australia who we haven’t come across yet. However, we still think the remarkable Florence Jean Barber deserves her 15 minutes of fame! Read more about Florence in the following story.
As told by family member, Helen Barber:
Florence Jean Barber was born in Gilgandra, New South Wales, on the 4th of October, 1914, but has lived most of her life in the Werribee and Geelong areas. Her father and mother had a farm in Werribee, which was very different back then.
Florence has lived a very full life. When she contracted polio in 1917 in Geelong, her father made her a special tricycle to get around, which she operated with her left hand. Perhaps it was the early memory of her tricycle that later inspired her to learn to drive, which was a terrific thing for her because that was how she gained her independence.
Although driving required the use of her feet to some degree, a lot of it was modified for hand operation. We used to worry because she would manually lift her leg with her hands to change between the accelerator and the brake, which meant there was always a delayed reaction. However, driving did provide her with a lot of freedom.
In raising Florence, I think her parents would have been quite protective of her, but she has an independent spirit. When she eventually got the car, I imagine her mother would have felt quite anxious about letting Florence go. However, it was a real turning point when she was able to take her mother out for a drive.
Florence used to work at Bright & Hitchcock, a department store operating from the same site from 1855 to 1979 in Geelong. She was employed as a seamstress and she would alter clothes for people; fixing hems, modifying fittings, and so on.
Florence has been a keen gardener all her life. I remember visiting her in Newtown where I’d see her sitting on the ground, tending her garden bed. Florence was always proud of her garden, growing and even selling lovely chrysanthemums and other flowers. She also loved cooking and used to do a lot of baking.
Polio affects Florence’s legs and she wore a calliper on her left leg most of her life. She lived on her own until she was 95, when she contracted a lung infection and was admitted to a respite facility. After that, health workers said she couldn’t go home because she could no longer put her calliper back on and had no way of standing up at all.
Since then, Florence has lived in an aged care home. She is no longer able to use her legs, so relies on a wheelchair and being transferred by staff. However, Florence is a long-time member of the Geelong Polio Support Group, and whilst she no longer attends meetings, she still looks forward to receiving their newsletters each month!
Florence passed away at the grand old age of 102 years and 297 days in July 2017.