Polio: An American Story Info

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Here David Oshinsky tells the gripping story of the polio terror
and of the intense effort to find a cure, from the March of Dimes to
the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines and beyond. Drawing on
newly available papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and other key
players, Oshinsky paints a suspenseful portrait of the race for the
cure, weaving a dramatic tale centered on the furious rivalry between
Salk and Sabin. He also tells the story of Isabel Morgan, perhaps the
most talented of all polio researchers, who might have beaten Salk to
the prize if she had not retired to raise a family.
Oshinsky
offers an insightful look at the National Foundation for Infantile
Paralysis, which was founded in the 1930s by FDR and Basil O'Connor, it
revolutionized fundraising and the perception of disease in America.
Oshinsky also shows how the polio experience revolutionized the way in
which the government licensed and tested new drugs before allowing them
on the market, and the way in which the legal system dealt with
manufacturers' liability for unsafe products. Finally, and perhaps most
tellingly, Oshinsky reveals that polio was never the raging epidemic
portrayed by the media, but in truth a relatively uncommon disease. But
in baby booming America increasingly suburban, family oriented, and
hygiene obsessed the specter of polio, like the specter of the atomic
bomb, soon became a cloud of terror over daily life.
Both a
gripping scientific suspense story and a provocative social and cultural
history, Polio opens a fresh window onto postwar
America.

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Reviews for Polio: An American Story:

4

Jun 10, 2019

School is finally out for the summer later this week. According to my reading challenge, the last four books I have read have been baseball related. It has been a busy time to say the least and I am salivating at the premise of being able to read more ahem quality non fiction. One ongoing challenge of mine that has been sidetracked but not forgotten is reading Pulitzer winners. With the school year about to end, I finally got to read another award winner as part of a buddy read in the nonfiction School is finally out for the summer later this week. According to my reading challenge, the last four books I have read have been baseball related. It has been a busy time to say the least and I am salivating at the premise of being able to read more ahem quality non fiction. One ongoing challenge of mine that has been sidetracked but not forgotten is reading Pulitzer winners. With the school year about to end, I finally got to read another award winner as part of a buddy read in the nonfiction book club. Polio: An American Story by David E. Oshinsky won the 2006 nonfiction award. Telling the story of the eradication of polio through a historical lens, I was able to overcome my general squeamishness toward all things medical and participate in the buddy read.

The year 1954 gave the United States the first test trials of the polio vaccine. In the media, the event was lauded as a great medical breakthrough. My parents were in kindergarten at the time and among the hundreds of thousands of children given the vaccine as test subjects. Prior to 1954, polio was considered a fatal disease with cases numbering in five digits during the worst epidemic years. Scientists note that polio was at its worst in advanced countries that enjoyed the spoils of a modern society- soap, heightened sanitation, and less germs. Outbreaks occurred in urban centers, and the 1916 epidemic in New York City touched thousands of children. Those with means fled to the countryside, but polio struck many of those who stayed. Parents were alarmed each spring and summer and took strict measures, keeping their children inside, yet the disease took its toll each year with no cure in sight.

The most famous of polio victims was President Franklin Roosevelt, who was stricken on a family vacation in northern Maine when he was at the prime of life. Paralyzed from the waist down at the worst of his diagnosis, FDR spent the rest of his political career hiding his paralysis from the American public. When it was apparent that he would be nominated as governor of New York in 1928, FDR was determined to find a cure for his affliction and found one in the waters of Warm Springs, Georgia. It was there that he spent 116 of the next 208 weeks away from his family as FDR used the retreat in an attempt to walk again. His case was one of the fortunate ones, however, as children faced a life in an iron lung, leg braces, or being confined to a wheelchair as well as countless fatalities. As the quality of life in the United States improves, the chasm between polio cases within her borders versus the rest of the world widened.

With FDR as the face of the disease, his law partner Basil O’Connor was tabbed to run the National Polio Foundation with its headquarters in both New York and Warm Springs. O’Connor enlisted Hollywood celebrities who admired FDR to lend their names to the cause, and one came up with the name March of Dimes as its fundraising arm. Each year on FDR’s birthday hundreds of thousands of dimes arrived at the White House as the American public contributed in what little means they had to help communities ravaged by the disease. The funds went to assist families who had children stricken by polio but also funded scientists who were in a race to develop a long sought after vaccine to eradicate the disease. It is this race that lead to a lifetime rivalry between two key virologists as they sought to become the first to develop a cure for this deadly disease.

Today children receive two polio shots as infants and polio is wiped out in all but a few pockets of Africa and Southeast Asia. This was not always the case. During the 1940s Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin raced to see who would develop a polio vaccine first. Oshinsky interspersed the science behind the polio vaccine with the history of the time period making Polio: An American Story a compelling read. Salk was the poster boy of the National Foundation and was willing to lose his anonymity to connect with the American people. He favored a killed virus vaccine as he noted that the presence of live virus could lead to more polio epidemics. While the favorite of the media, Salk irked the scientific community who believed that the best scientists should stay anonymous in their labs. As a result, Salk was never inducted into the National Academy of Sciences despite his achievement. Biologists viewed Salk as a less than stellar member of the field. The leader of this view was Albert Sabin, an at times pompous self centered scientist who rivaled Salk for fame and glory. Sabin favored a live virus vaccine and denounced Salk at every opportunity he could. Their rivalry would last for the rest of the their lives, yet, in the early 1950s, the race to find the first vaccine that worked was on and the rivalry was intense.

In many historical books and memoirs I have read of the 1940s and early 1950s, the fear of polio was real. Children were not allowed out of their homes in the summer and if they went to swimming pools they had to dry off and change out of their swimming suits immediately. One generation later having had the vaccine as a baby, the fear of swimming pools was something I never had to experience. Yet, to my parents and their contemporaries not being able to swim for the first six summers of their life was a reality. Perhaps if FDR was not stricken by polio, then the race to find a vaccine would not have been as immediate. Scientists at the time were focused on finding an influenza vaccine and cared more about quality than swiftness. Today there is a FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. that depicts him both standing and in a wheelchair. It was through his National Foundation that funding for research took off.

Polio: An American Story was a compelling read that gave readers a sense of the prevailing views of the time period and the race to develop a vaccine. Today both the Salk and Sabin versions of the vaccine are used in parts of the world as there is indeed merit in both live and killed virus vaccines. Oshinsky did impeccable research and as one more inclined to read history books, I felt he discussed the scientific sections without getting too advanced for my tastes. Oshinsky is a history professor at the University of Texas and has written other books about the 1950s, his preferred time period of research. Polio is a breakthrough in that it combines history and science and focuses on a disease as a main character, yet another Pulitzer winner I can cross off my list.

4 stars ...more
3

Jan 22, 2009

My older brother died before I was born due to bulbar polio in 1949. As a result, my parents decided to try again so I can say I am here due to polio.

Naturally this book caught my eye when I spotted in on a friend's bookshelf and reading it I discovered how little I knew about the disease and the people involved with finding a cure.

The book can be divided into two parts - the first dealing with the period up to the death of FDR (who had the disease) and the second dealing with the effort to find My older brother died before I was born due to bulbar polio in 1949. As a result, my parents decided to try again so I can say I am here due to polio.

Naturally this book caught my eye when I spotted in on a friend's bookshelf and reading it I discovered how little I knew about the disease and the people involved with finding a cure.

The book can be divided into two parts - the first dealing with the period up to the death of FDR (who had the disease) and the second dealing with the effort to find a vaccine.

In common with several other accounts of scientific pursuits, the search for a polio vaccine features the usual personality conflicts and large egos that place emphasis on MY discoveries and MY work rather than the overall effort. Scientists are people and can be just as petty and self-serving as anyone else. But, through competition come the benefits we all enjoy when the personal feuds are long forgotten.

The March of Dimes, Jonas Salk and the peculiar word bulbar that refers to the most deadly manifestation of the disease are all words that I recall hearing when I was a wee lad, so I read with great interest about them. Remarkably, the entire organization and money-raising effort that brought the Salk vaccine in 1954 was almost completely free of either government or American Medical Association
involvement. How times have changed!

Easy to read and fast moving, the book will keep you wondering what twists the story will take and twist it certainly does, but explained in a way that won't leave you confused. Polio is a competent job of history writing and, though not a book I'd keep for my library, reading it was time well spent. ...more
5

May 19, 2011

I know it’s become cliché, particularly in my reviews, to say that a history book reads like a novel, but this one really does, and not just a contemplative novel, but a page-turning drama. The protagonist is Dr. Jonas Salk and he and rival scientist Dr. Albert Sabin are in a race to conquer a truly frightening enemy: the polio epidemic.

Having read Laser, I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked that science is as ego-driven as any other pursuit, but the self-interest of the scientists was I know it’s become cliché, particularly in my reviews, to say that a history book reads like a novel, but this one really does, and not just a contemplative novel, but a page-turning drama. The protagonist is Dr. Jonas Salk and he and rival scientist Dr. Albert Sabin are in a race to conquer a truly frightening enemy: the polio epidemic.

Having read Laser, I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked that science is as ego-driven as any other pursuit, but the self-interest of the scientists was pretty appalling, especially when the risks were so high. Dr. Salk definitely lost luster in my eyes, and Dr. Sabin was even worse. But lest I give the wrong impression, the book covers much more than those two and their race to the vaccine. It begins with the rise of germ theory in the early 20th century and then takes us to the first polio epidemic of 1916. It explores FDR’s conflicted relationship with his handicap and the founding of the March of Dimes. My favorite “minor character” was Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who took on the medical establishment with her unorthodox but highly effective physical therapy treatments. She was a celebrity in her time, and a movie was made about her life. I think it’s time for a remake. After all, “The King’s Speech” covered the unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

I recommend this book particularly to people who aren’t in the habit of reading history. It covers the 20th century, so it’s close enough to most of us to be somewhat familiar, if only through history classes and films. At the same time, though, it’s a different world – a time when kids weren’t free to go out to play for fear of spending the rest of their lives in an iron lung. The people are multi-dimensional, and you get a sense of dialogue because the author quotes extensively from interviews. I admit I didn’t “get” all the science, but the book is what it says: the story of how the American people banded together to wipe out one terrible threat. May Hashem help us to rise to face our current challenges with such unity.
...more
5

Feb 14, 2009

As has been said, this book reads like a mystery. Fascinating details about the disease, its history, the times, the medicine, the pain, the people who fought to eradicate it and the politics. I realized that I was one of the children on whom the vaccine was tested in 1954. I remember clearly being taken in to the cafeteria at St. Austin's School and being lined up to get the shot. I am told I cried but don't remember that part! Of course, at eight years, I had no idea of the controversy and the As has been said, this book reads like a mystery. Fascinating details about the disease, its history, the times, the medicine, the pain, the people who fought to eradicate it and the politics. I realized that I was one of the children on whom the vaccine was tested in 1954. I remember clearly being taken in to the cafeteria at St. Austin's School and being lined up to get the shot. I am told I cried but don't remember that part! Of course, at eight years, I had no idea of the controversy and the risk. I would give a lot to be able to talk to my father, a physician, about his thinking, giving permission to be in the pilot test, and the risks. ...more
5

Nov 28, 2008

I read this Pulitzer Prize winner on the recommendation of Dan Jewett, Social Studies Chair at Manchester Essex RHS. As a polio victim myself (at age 5 in 1952), I well remember the Sister Kenny treatments (hot wool wraps on my affected legs) and the physical therapy that my mother did with me. Oshinsky was taken the story and made a drama of the race to create a vaccine. The Salk/Sabin race, the origins and strategies of the March of Dimes (which paid for all my treatment), and the controversy I read this Pulitzer Prize winner on the recommendation of Dan Jewett, Social Studies Chair at Manchester Essex RHS. As a polio victim myself (at age 5 in 1952), I well remember the Sister Kenny treatments (hot wool wraps on my affected legs) and the physical therapy that my mother did with me. Oshinsky was taken the story and made a drama of the race to create a vaccine. The Salk/Sabin race, the origins and strategies of the March of Dimes (which paid for all my treatment), and the controversy over how to distribute the vaccine all make for compelling reading. The book is meticulously researched and is riveting.

One saddening side note: In discussing the Eisenhower administration's inability to get the approved vaccine to the people, Oshinsky writes, "The administration's lack of planning was a conscious decision, not an unfortunate oversight. Neither the President nor his advisors viewed the distribution of the polio vaccine as a legitimate government function." In retrospect, the public interest and lives of many cried out for government action, and I could not help but think of today's health care debate, and how in the future we will find it ridiculous that we waited so long to provide health care for all.

What a wonderful piece of scholarship! ...more
4

Jan 06, 2016

Such an interesting account of the history of the quest of a vaccine for polio. Amazing that so much was done by a private agency with volunteers and donations from the American public. Such a shame to see the petty rivals among the scientists.
4

Aug 03, 2017

Happy to learn about a disease, now conquered in this country, but that was held in such dread less than a century ago. Some highlights(Spoilers?): President Roosevelt hid his disability from the public with the help of reporters(!) It was the first time the nation came together to donate money for a health issue. Many monkeys died for the sake of the vaccine. Unethical testing was done on institutionalized children. TWO MILLION CHILDREN were part of a National TRIAL to discover the Happy to learn about a disease, now conquered in this country, but that was held in such dread less than a century ago. Some highlights(Spoilers?): President Roosevelt hid his disability from the public with the help of reporters(!) It was the first time the nation came together to donate money for a health issue. Many monkeys died for the sake of the vaccine. Unethical testing was done on institutionalized children. TWO MILLION CHILDREN were part of a National TRIAL to discover the effectiveness of the vaccine. There was a movement to start socialized medicine, but pharmaceutical companies and the McCarthy scare squashed it. An informative and satisfying read. ...more
5

Nov 15, 2018

If you feel bad about how things are going in the world these days, all one has to do is read some history to realize how much better things are now than they used to be. Like for example as long as I know we are not testing vaccines on mentally ill children in mental institutions. This book was fascinating, covering not only from a historical perspective but also discussing the political side of early vaccines with the ramifications of privilege/wealth in the US. I would definitely recommend to If you feel bad about how things are going in the world these days, all one has to do is read some history to realize how much better things are now than they used to be. Like for example as long as I know we are not testing vaccines on mentally ill children in mental institutions. This book was fascinating, covering not only from a historical perspective but also discussing the political side of early vaccines with the ramifications of privilege/wealth in the US. I would definitely recommend to anyone who this sounds interesting to. It does read rather dry, but I don't ever mind that as long as I'm learning something. ...more
4

Aug 09, 2019

Very interesting look at the history of polio and the vaccine development to thwart it. It wasn't all rosy success--there were plenty of interpersonal professional scuffles along the way--but of course, those juicy bits are always fun for the reader to learn. Went on a bit long at times, but overall an insightful read. (Listened to it as an audiobook.)
3

May 06, 2019

More like 3.5. Very interesting but it wasn't earth shattering. Also I am a tough reviewer before coffee.

Most important takeaway--VACCINATION SAVES LIVES!
4

Aug 27, 2013

A great turn of events surrounding post WWII. The advancements in cleanliness with the sprawling of the suburbs brought about an awakening of a common disease that usually young children are exposed to and built immunity against quickly. Boys were especially hit hard and class distinction played a part where the middle class was more susceptible. War brought with it field studies involving vaccinations for flu and yellow fever so fighting polio would have a laid out plan to follow.
Polio was A great turn of events surrounding post WWII. The advancements in cleanliness with the sprawling of the suburbs brought about an awakening of a common disease that usually young children are exposed to and built immunity against quickly. Boys were especially hit hard and class distinction played a part where the middle class was more susceptible. War brought with it field studies involving vaccinations for flu and yellow fever so fighting polio would have a laid out plan to follow.
Polio was ready to be dealt with and players such as Salk, Sabin, Francis, Koprowski etc. came along. The president at the time, Roosevelt, also contracted the virus and no doubt him being affected created a national urgency around this particular case. Polio came quickly in the summer time where exhaustion and heat seemed to play a role. A national foundation for infantile paralysis (NFIP) was set up and a man named O'Connor played the role of marketing, founding, and research distribution. The March of Dimes was an idea that the foundation used to generate income for the sick, survivors, and future research.
The next step was the vaccine for which Salk used a dead strain, and Sabin used a live strain. There was back and forth debate about which one was more effective. The Salk vaccine of 1954 brought about the first mass inoculations. The vaccine itself was produced by independent companies such as Elly Lilly and others. The Cutter fiasco unfortunately turned the independent free-market distribution on its head and thus need for governmental oversight. The American Medical Association (AMA) was also set up around this time (1955) to try to combat purely corporatist involvement.
Sabin's vaccine would overtake Salk's, and field trials in Moscow showed to be workable. Till the end Sabin and Salk were in a race and both believed their own versions of the vaccine to be superior. Polio was really the top fundraising disease at the time with cancer being third. It brought about the concept of fund raising on a massive scale that we see today as well as superstar scientists like Salk. ...more
4

Apr 04, 2019

This book won a Pulitzer in 2006 and after reading, believe the award was quite justified. Interesting stuff!

There was a brief history of Polio provided at the beginning, but there real focus of this book began in chapter two, when FDR became infected. There’s a great deal of information about the creation and mobilization of the March of Dimes and its epic successes through the years. Polio was definitely the hardest fought disease of the last century. That said, there’s a chart on page 239 This book won a Pulitzer in 2006 and after reading, believe the award was quite justified. Interesting stuff!

There was a brief history of Polio provided at the beginning, but there real focus of this book began in chapter two, when FDR became infected. There’s a great deal of information about the creation and mobilization of the March of Dimes and its epic successes through the years. Polio was definitely the hardest fought disease of the last century. That said, there’s a chart on page 239 that really put it into a strange perspective for me. It shows the Agency, the amount of money it raised, and the number of cases in 1954. The National Association for Infantile Paralysis raised almost 70 million dollars that year and there were 100,000 cases. By comparison, the American Heart Association raised a measly 11.3 million dollars that year, while there were 10 million heart cases. Speaks volumes to the power of marketing and the fear of this disease in the heart of the American public.

The Salk-Sabin conflict was well covered and left me just appalled at the size of their egos. Pathetic pathetic pathetic. Reminded me of all the conflict between virologists during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Boggles the mind to wonder what would happen if they all worked together for the greater good instead of actively against each other...sigh...

In any case, very interesting book, definitely recommend! ...more
4

Jul 19, 2014

Long but intriguing history of a medical mystery. There's lots about science in here, of course, but there's also politics, technology, persuasion, and international relations. Oshinsky provides mini-biographies of FDR, Salk, Sabin, and many others.

I didn't know that the March of Dimes name was a pun on the March of Time, a popular newsreel back in the day. I didn't realize that Canada treated polio as a public health emergency and planned for months to distribute polio vaccine as soon as it was Long but intriguing history of a medical mystery. There's lots about science in here, of course, but there's also politics, technology, persuasion, and international relations. Oshinsky provides mini-biographies of FDR, Salk, Sabin, and many others.

I didn't know that the March of Dimes name was a pun on the March of Time, a popular newsreel back in the day. I didn't realize that Canada treated polio as a public health emergency and planned for months to distribute polio vaccine as soon as it was available, while the United States at first tried to treat it as a matter for private companies and individual doctors. There was such an outcry that the Eisenhower administration changed its mind and cabinet member Oveta Culp Hobby was eventually hounded to resign over it. (She didn't help her case when she said publicly that nobody could have predicted such demand for polio vaccine . . . this at a time when polio epidemics killed thousands each summer.)

Very sad to read about Isabel Morgan, a superstar polio researcher who was underpaid and underappreciated. She retired midcareer to become a wife and stepmother and to do other, less crucial research near her husband's job. Makes you wonder how much talent America has allowed to wither because the person in question was the wrong gender or race or religion or wasn't rich.

Inspiring to find out about the remaining polio survivors, who on average have more education and higher earnings than their peers. They realized that they would have to work harder than others just to break even . . . and sometimes not even that.

...more
5

Aug 24, 2009

I have a masochistic streak which drives me to read the opinions of pundits. As a result, I am subjected to a lot of gaseous carping by soreheads about how bad everything has come to be. Yearning for the good old days yourself? Consider this scenario:

Day 1: Everything fine -- a beautiful summer day.
Day 2: After a day of exercise, you have a stiff neck and are very tired.
Day 3: You have polio -- you're in agony.
Day 4 until the end of your life: You are a helpless cripple in an iron lung, I have a masochistic streak which drives me to read the opinions of pundits. As a result, I am subjected to a lot of gaseous carping by soreheads about how bad everything has come to be. Yearning for the good old days yourself? Consider this scenario:

Day 1: Everything fine -- a beautiful summer day.
Day 2: After a day of exercise, you have a stiff neck and are very tired.
Day 3: You have polio -- you're in agony.
Day 4 until the end of your life: You are a helpless cripple in an iron lung, bankrupting your family.

Happy that this is no longer something to worry about? Me too! This improvement in the standard of living is not attributable to the miracle of free market forces, nor was it the result of some benevolent government program. Instead, far-flung group of individuals (mostly scientists, but also fundraisers), working independently but each seemingly driven by a combination of altruism and egomania, decided to devote the talents they had been blessed with to the elimination of the disease. Step by tiny step, with some steps backwards, over a period of years, they succeeded, in spite of (and sometimes because of) fighting ferociously with each other.

This book is not for people who need their heroes endless admirable, but I give it the highest word of praise I can give a book, one I always search for in reviews: “readable”.

P.S. I also learned what "adjuvant" means. ...more
4

May 26, 2018

I read this book in part because one of my friends was diagnosed with post polio syndrome in her late forties, and in part, to understand polio better and how the the vaccine was developed.

This sprawling epic proved to be a good choice. It takes readers on a journey from the earliest fraught days of scientific research through to the issues we face today, as polio and other preventable diseases are making comebacks among populations that have no experience with the disease and mistrust science I read this book in part because one of my friends was diagnosed with post polio syndrome in her late forties, and in part, to understand polio better and how the the vaccine was developed.

This sprawling epic proved to be a good choice. It takes readers on a journey from the earliest fraught days of scientific research through to the issues we face today, as polio and other preventable diseases are making comebacks among populations that have no experience with the disease and mistrust science to provide prevention.

We meet and come to know and understand the leading researchers behind the Salk and live vaccines developed in the 1950s, informed by years of work and at times fractious competition between labs. Controversy and conflict drive outcomes as much as collaboration.

The author weaves the polio story together with broader themes around the funding of research, the political and sociocultural factors that have shaped health care more generally in the USA.

A fascinating read. ...more
5

Jul 30, 2017

I remember my mother saying the reason that she never learned to swim as a child was because of the fear of polio. I am not old enough to remember the braces on childrens legs or the iron lung so after reading David M. Oshinsky's Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, which I found to be exceedingly well written, I decided to try this book. Polio: An American Story turned out to be just as well written. The author takes us in to the time where polio I remember my mother saying the reason that she never learned to swim as a child was because of the fear of polio. I am not old enough to remember the braces on childrens legs or the iron lung so after reading David M. Oshinsky's Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, which I found to be exceedingly well written, I decided to try this book. Polio: An American Story turned out to be just as well written. The author takes us in to the time where polio was dominate, where heartbrake came every summer and for the families where the (mainly children) loved ones lived, the heartbrake prevailed. The histories of Salk and Sabin and the rush to find a vaccine were very interestingly told and I could feel the hope of the millions who were worried about this disease and their families...

I very much recommend this book. ...more
5

Mar 12, 2013



Excellent account of the history of the campaign against polio in the US. Perhaps my experience as a polio survivor influences my reaction to the book. However, this is the first book that has made me want to know more about this terrible disease. I would have liked to have read even more about the social history of reactions to polio. I think a lot of reviewers are too young to understand how the threat of polio really paralyzed our society and distorted childhood experiences for many.
4

Aug 01, 2018

The history of polio in America is a long sprawling tale, which includes a president, a wildly successful fundraising organization, baby boomer epidemics, 1950s suburban terror, iron lungs (!), and the first celebrity scientist. And let’s throw in some high stakes scientific rivalries while we are at it.

This is typically my favorite type of non fiction book, but I have discovered I enjoy books with a little more focus. This one had to be sprawling.
5

Jun 23, 2011

Pulitzer Prize for History 2006. I don't often read non-fiction. Oshinsky elightens the social, economic and medical climates for polio. He depicts the terror and frustration associated with this mysterious virus.

1952, the year I contracted polio, was "the worst polio year on record, with more than 57,000 cases nationwide."

I feel very fortunate. I have some paralysis and post-polio syndrome, but I'm still here.
5

Feb 02, 2011

Warning,-long review, spoiler alert, they find a vaccine for POLIO
Polio, An American Story isn’t just a book about infantile paralysis in the 1950’s, it’s a book rich with American history and while I generally am loathsome of such detail and find it distracting to the main point, I couldn’t get enough of it in this book and found the authors extraordinary detail only enlightening.
Oshinsky begins by explaining that the state of the American Medical institutions in the 1900 was both dangerous Warning,-long review, spoiler alert, they find a vaccine for POLIO
Polio, An American Story isn’t just a book about infantile paralysis in the 1950’s, it’s a book rich with American history and while I generally am loathsome of such detail and find it distracting to the main point, I couldn’t get enough of it in this book and found the authors extraordinary detail only enlightening.
Oshinsky begins by explaining that the state of the American Medical institutions in the 1900 was both dangerous and embarrassing and severely lagging behind the European laboratories. He writes “Virtually all of the recent breakthroughs in the terrifying struggle against infectious disease such as malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and syphilis had occurred on European soil, where the pursuit of medical research had wide popular support. In France contributions from an adoring public had created the Pasture institute.” It wasn’t until the widely misunderstood John D Rockefeller lent his support, (post capitalist boom) that the American Medical standards began to rise. In fact he has one of my favorite quotes in the book. “It is a great problem to learn how to give, without weakening the moral backbone of the beneficiary.” Rockefeller gave to the University of Chicago and started the Rockefeller Institute in NYC and this is where much of the Polio research began.
The book then covers in great detail the presidential candidacy of President F.D. Roosevelt, how he was stricken with polio, how Dr. William Keen billed the family $600 for a house visit and recommended deep massage and exercise (the worst possible treatment) and a few days later he had lost all movement below his waist. The author covers how FRD’s campaign managers convinced the press to not take photos of him in a wheel chair and how by the end of the 1932 election the American people didn’t care at all about the wheel chair they only cared about the economy, which is logical given the circumstances of the Great Depression. The book also suggests that it was because an American President became stricken with Polio that it took the stigmatism out of it having it and put urgency into curing it. FDR became a great crusader for curing the dreaded illness.
But my favorite person in the book by far is an unsung hero in American history named Basil O’Connor. He was FDR’s Wall Street Law partner he and reluctantly agreed to take over FDR’s Warm Spring’s Institute for Rehabilitation which later led him into his real mission in life –raising money for Polio research and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. O’Conner raised over 1,800,000(in 1950 dollars) for Polio, you might recognize the name as “The March of Dimes”. It was with this money that O’Conner funded Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to ultimately find a vaccine for Polio.
As a side note LADIES, a women named Isabel Morgan was actually the first researcher to successfully test a killed polio virus on a monkey in 1949 (6 years before Salk) But left her Johns Hopkins career to marry and raise a family.
I could go on and on, I only covered 1 one hundredth of this book. Suffice it to say, it was outstanding and completely deserving of the Pulitzer for History books.
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3

Aug 04, 2014

It's interesting that the polio vaccine is hailed as a scientific milestone when the disease was relatively rare in the US. I didn't know much about polio prior to reading this, and had pictured it as a public health threat just below that of the Spanish flu of 1918. However, its incidence (100,000 cases in 1954) was trumped up by the incredible funding provided by the March of Dimes, which, in turn, was funded by polio's most visible victim, Franklin Roosevelt. I would have loved a story of the It's interesting that the polio vaccine is hailed as a scientific milestone when the disease was relatively rare in the US. I didn't know much about polio prior to reading this, and had pictured it as a public health threat just below that of the Spanish flu of 1918. However, its incidence (100,000 cases in 1954) was trumped up by the incredible funding provided by the March of Dimes, which, in turn, was funded by polio's most visible victim, Franklin Roosevelt. I would have loved a story of the bench science and viral mechanisms of the vaccine race between Jonas Salk and Alexander Sabin, but in this case the national publicity and dump truck of cash focused virology research on polio.

It was a terrible disease, one that hit the healthy and well-to-do (which probably galvanized said funding) without warning. The effects were grim: paralysis of limbs, children riding out their years in an iron lung, and vibrant people struck dead. Salk's vaccine saved millions, and with little ill effect. It's a tidy story of American ingenuity, ready for another printing of history textbooks.

However, the book doesn't seem to imply that Salk had a particular stroke of genius that created the vaccine. He was dedicated to his craft and a brilliant man, but it appears his vaccine was more the product of solid labwork than Arthur Fleming creating penicillin from a discarded orange. I think that's an important lesson, as so many discoveries are treated as "eureka" moments from eccentrics we can never hope to replicate.

It's an interesting story, told from all angles, and focusing on the social machine that created the demand for, and the public solution to a disease. Intellectually, it's a 4-star book, but it didn't move me, create anticipation, or compel me with anything besides the utilitarian competence of the narrative, so 3 stars it is. ...more
5

Nov 02, 2011

Fascinating, well-written book. The book sort of starts with FDR as the impetus behind the national crusade against polio. I was planning to judge the author harshly if he didn't acknowledge current theories that FDR had not been struck by polio but by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which as an armchair diagnostician I find convincing based on his age and the bilateral involvement. Oshinsky passed the test.

The book covers both the social and the scientific angles, describing equally adeptly the birth Fascinating, well-written book. The book sort of starts with FDR as the impetus behind the national crusade against polio. I was planning to judge the author harshly if he didn't acknowledge current theories that FDR had not been struck by polio but by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which as an armchair diagnostician I find convincing based on his age and the bilateral involvement. Oshinsky passed the test.

The book covers both the social and the scientific angles, describing equally adeptly the birth of modern philanthropy, the evolution of polio treatment (including a small bit on the iron lung), and the scientific search for and battle over a vaccine. It's worth noting that many of the same scientists were involved in the polio fight as in The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Oshinsky's treatment is light years ahead of that one (though I confess The Great Influenza gave me a lot of background knowledge that enriched Polio).

The interesting tidbit I learned: I had never considered why polio only became a big thing in the 20th century. Turns out, polio is generally transmitted orally, i.e., through food or water contaminated with feces. Before the development of modern sewage and hygeine, most people were exposed to polio as infants. For some reason, infants appear less susceptible to the paralytic complications of polio. And once you've had it, you're immune for life. It was only after the development of modern water systems kept polio away from infants that it arose as a childhood disease. ...more
3

Feb 04, 2008

I won't bore you with the 10 page critical book review I had to write on this, I'll just say that it's a book worth reading if you're interested in the history of medicine. While I thought Oshinsky spent too much time in the first half of the book talking about FDR, the second half was an interesting, thought-provoking, page-turning read. Not only does he discuss the trials of Salk and Sabin in great detail, but also some lesser known scientists who almost beat Salk to the punch. Polio history I won't bore you with the 10 page critical book review I had to write on this, I'll just say that it's a book worth reading if you're interested in the history of medicine. While I thought Oshinsky spent too much time in the first half of the book talking about FDR, the second half was an interesting, thought-provoking, page-turning read. Not only does he discuss the trials of Salk and Sabin in great detail, but also some lesser known scientists who almost beat Salk to the punch. Polio history would certainly looked different if Isabel Morgan hadn't dropped out of the race to get married and have kids, or if Hilary Koprowski's recklass human trials had gone differently.

If this doesn't make you want to read the book, I don't know what will:

"A decade later, Joseph Goldberger had demonstrated that pellagra was noninfectious by injecting himself with the blood of its [human] victims, eating pieces of their scaled-off skin, and even swallowing a vial containing bits of their feces."

Or this:

"Koprowski's moment came int 1948. Late one winter afternoon, he and his assistant, Thomas Norton, whipped up a "polio cocktail," using a Waring blender to turn the pieces of rat spinal cord and brain tissue into a gray "oily glop." The two men drank from small glass beakers, tilting their heads fully to drain the liquid. It tasted a lot like cod-liver oil, they agreed. 'Have another?' asked Norton. 'Better not,' Koprowski replied. 'I'm driving.'" ...more
4

Mar 18, 2012

A fascinating book about the history of polio in the United States and the development of vaccines eradicated it. The rise of polio in the United States seems to come about with the increase cleanliness of America in the early part of the 20th century. Before 1900 few Americans bathed more than once a week or washed their hair more than once a month and few washed their hands before eating after using the toilet.

With the discovery of microbes in the 1870s and the development of the germ theory A fascinating book about the history of polio in the United States and the development of vaccines eradicated it. The rise of polio in the United States seems to come about with the increase cleanliness of America in the early part of the 20th century. Before 1900 few Americans bathed more than once a week or washed their hair more than once a month and few washed their hands before eating after using the toilet.

With the discovery of microbes in the 1870s and the development of the germ theory of disease people began to clean things. Listerine and cellophane were developed and soap came in the common use. As this antiseptic campaign succeeded polio epidemics began to emerge. Though many blamed polio on immigrants and the poor the epidemic struck mostly the middle class.

School campaigns were started to teach children how to wash their hands and how to bathe the goal was to teach people to love to be clean. It seems to work. In 1930 a survey showed that soap was the third essential of life right behind bread and butter.

The campaign to eradicate polio United States would not have started had not in 1921 Franklin D. Roosevelt, former secretary of the Navy, come down with polio and be paralyzed from the waist down. He found comfort in the water bath treatments in Warm Springs Georgia and asked his law partner, Basil O'Connor to head the campaign to fund raise for the Warm Springs foundation. This began with a series of yearly fundraising balls to celebrate Roosevelt's birthday these were enormously successful until charitable donations dried up with the depression.

An entertainer Eddie Cantor was invited to help with the fundraising campaign and he suggested the slogan “March of Dimes” after a popular news real feature, the March of Time. The concept of collecting dimes to l protect the health of children was a potent symbol for the nation, culminating with the release of the Roosevelt time in 1946.

In 1938 Roosevelt announced the formation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis who’s goals were to find a cure and to provide treatment for polio victims. Basil O’Conner was named its head. Money was collected locally, half stayed in the local communities for polio treatment, the other half went to the national foundation to be distributed for polio research and special epidemic treatment needs. Between 1930s and 1955 the foundation spent 232 million on patient care about two thirds of its total budget for individual medical bills. There was no means test for those requiring help.

The national foundation organize the publicity for the fund raising campaigns such as a movie called The Crippler in which a dark cloud spreads over a playground of children and is finally dispelled by a pretty young actress later known as Nancy Reagan. The short was shown and movie houses in 1941 and almost half a million dollars came in from movie box collections alone.

The incidence of polio rows 1946 there were 25,000 reported cases matching the epidemic of 1916 and that yearly total wood told rise to 58,000 1952. Most children recovered completely chance of getting a serious case was small hoping permanently disabled was very small and the chances of dying from polio work miniscule however the victims were so visible and so young that the disease was terrifying. In 1946 the March of Dimes introduced its first official polio poster child the idea was controversial and there was debate over whether to show a cheerful happy child or a frightened and side one. He was Donald Anderson a six-year-old from Oregon who love detention and had a tendency to show off and had recovered something that completely from his polio attack.

Jonas Salk grew up in the Jewish immigrant culture of New York. The son of a grade school dropout from Russia who worked in Manhattan's garment district he was academically very ambitious. He went to NYU medical school (other medical schools were not open to Jews, Yale accepted by order of the dean “five Jews, two Italian Catholics and no blacks.) After graduation Salk married a girl from wealthy family who would not give up their daughter unless he had a doctor in front of his name and he added Edward as a middle name. He did not have one previously. The silliness of people.

At the national foundation Basil O'Connor appointed Harry Weaver to organize the research into the cure of polio it was his organization determination finally led to a cure. He had to decide who got funding and how much and what subjects would be looked at. One of the first tasks was to determine how many different strains of polio there were. This was time consuming grunt work and Salk offered to do the job. He got a ton of money and lab space but not the esteem of many of the other polio researchers, particularly Sabin, who regarded Salk as not very smart or sophisticated. He was never admitted to the most prestigious of the national science academies.

However Salk persevered typed the virus and eventually developed a killed vaccine that proved effective in major US trials. This vaccine would not cause a case of polio but was not as effective as the attenuated vaccine developed by Sabin a year later. The Sabin vaccine became the world standard and has essentially wiped polio from the earth. Ironically, however, now that polio is so rare the killed vaccine should be used as the attenuated can cause polio in rare cases. But retooling all the factories will not happen.

Fascinating book about the early days of modern vaccinations.
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2

Oct 23, 2013

Workman-like and competent, this book is Pulitzer Prize material more because of the weakness of field that year (the other 2006 nominees were New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan & The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln) than the impressiveness of this very uneven volume.

Oshinsky's primary interest, and his real talent as an author lies in describing the personalities that pushed the search for a cure forward and their Workman-like and competent, this book is Pulitzer Prize material more because of the weakness of field that year (the other 2006 nominees were New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan & The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln) than the impressiveness of this very uneven volume.

Oshinsky's primary interest, and his real talent as an author lies in describing the personalities that pushed the search for a cure forward and their relationships. For that reason the "American Story" of the subtitle is really a story of four primary actors: Franklin Roosevelt, Basil O'Connor, Jonas Salk, and Albert Sabin. In turn, each of these actors is presented as the public face of polio and the story of the cure is personalized through their actions. The result is that we hear about outbreaks and panics as asides to the main story, as in how the record polio year of 1952 lent support to those wanting to move Salk's vaccine to public trial. This also means that the wind down of the book is wasted space, since the climax of the story as told through these actors was the replacement of the Salk killed vaccine with Sabin's live vaccine in the 1960s. This is presented as a smooth transition that ended the contest, until the recent debates about phasing out the Sabin vaccine to bring an end the disease in the wild.

Problem one is that this four actor narrative over-simplifies the story, and reduces everything to interpersonal politics, and the rivalry of Salk and Sabin is characterized as a zero sum contest where one wins and the other loses. We lose the rich layer of paranoia that the March of Dimes inspired about the disease in an era already rich with fear. We lose the decades of research by other participants whose stories are as equally deserving of telling, and here only get a facile paragraph or so. We lose the seminal influence that the March of Dimes campaign had in establishing celebrity diseases and later searches for cures for breast cancer, drugs, AIDS, PKD, and others. We lose the cultural impact of the disease altogether except for the segment where Salk becomes a national hero.The narrowness of Oshinsky's vision is apparent in the selection of pictures included in the book. We are shown pictures of quarantines, but there is a bare mention in the text. We are shown Eddie Cantor, Richard Nixon, and Joe DiMaggio at March of Dimes events, but only Cantor gets bare notice in the text. We are shown ward after ward of sick children but we never visit them. We are shown images of mass vaccination programs, but they are just not mentioned. This is an "American story" at its most abstract.

Problem two is that anywhere these four actors are not involved Oshinsky becomes glib and unreliable. He doesn't seem very interested in why polio emerged in the early 20th century as a disease of the developed world, he first tells us that there are several hypotheses, and then only tells us of one that from then on he refers to as an established fact. He tells us of a woman who became an early hero of polio treatment through her theory that polio could be treated with heat and massage. We are never given any basis upon which we can judge the effectiveness of her treatment over others because up to that point Oshinsky didn't bother describing any treatment in detail with the one exception of how heat and massages potentially made FDR's polio damage worse. Then at the very end of the book, where he is trying to sum up the contest between Salk and Sabin we are simply told that Sabin's vaccine won in the 1960s and Salk left polio research to go found a research institute, and we are treated to long and digressive sections about the weirdness of the Salk Institute but no more detail about the ongoing discussions in the medical community that lasted throughout this period about which vaccine was more effective and the continual improvements in both vaccines. I was vaccinated against polio long after Sabin won the field in Oshinky's opinion, yet I (and all of my classmates) received the Salk killed virus. Then for a booster, I got the oral vaccine long before Oshinsky claims that the mixed approach was tried in the 2000s. This is just sloppy work that needlessly oversimplifies a complicated issue.

Problem three is that by naming this "An American Story" Oshinsky was able to ignore the global campaigns except for where it applies to his four actor narrative. So we get almost nothing about the eradication of polio in the western hemisphere, or the ongoing campaign which is getting close to eliminating the disease altogether (which was a stated goal already in 2005), but we do get detailed observations of Sabin's vaccine trials in Russia.

In short, because I feel that the personal rivalry of Salk and Sabin is the least interesting part of the history of polio, I consider this a very bad history. What it really is best considered as is four person biography. So two stars. ...more

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