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David M. Oshinsky. Polio: An American Story. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005. 342 p. $16.95 Paperback. ISBN 0195307143.


Polio: An American Story is David M. Oshinsky’s Pulitzer Prize winning account of the scientific race to develop a vaccine to protect children from poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio. He skillfully encompasses not only the history of medicine and science but also provides insight into how medicine and science intersected with social, cultural, economic and political history. Franklin Delano Roosevelt purchased property at Warm Springs, Georgia in April 1926 to be used as a polio rehabilitation center and was instrumental in the development of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) which would eventually be headed by his law partner Basil O’Connor. Under O’Connor’s leadership the NFIP provided funding for treatment and rehabilitation for polio victims as well as research grants to scientists who were developing polio vaccines.

Among the recipients of those research grants were Jonas Edward Salk, Albert Sabin and Hilary Koprowski. Sabin and Koprowski favored live virus vaccines, while Salk favored a killed virus vaccine. These three scientists became embroiled in a debate within the scientific community regarding the validity and safety of using either live or killed viruses in the development of vaccines – a debate which continued after their deaths. In 1954, the viable, killed virus vaccine developed by Jonas Salk’s laboratory became the focal point of a large scale double blind field test. On April 12, 1955, the tenth anniversary of FDR’s death the favorable findings of the Salk field test were revealed to the public. On April 22, 1955 during a meeting with Jonas Salk, President “Eisenhower promised to give the Salk vaccine formula to ‘every country that welcomed the knowledge, including the Soviet Union’.” (216) Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine was “America’s gift to the world”, a gift designed to protect children worldwide. (215)

In the course of relating the history of the development of the polio vaccines, Oshinsky also provides insight into the devastating effects of recurrent polio epidemics on entire communities. Children were prevented from playing outside with friends during the summer months in a attempt to keep them safe and healthy and parents watched helplessly as their children succumbed to this devastating and potentially deadly disease which crossed social and racial barriers. For these families, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was an answer to their prayers.


Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story gives substance to the information regarding polio treatment, rehabilitation and research introduced in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. Goodwin focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s experience as a polio survivor and his crusade to provide affordable treatment and funding for polio research. In 1926 he purchased Warm Springs, Georgia and turned the dilapidated resort into a polio rehabilitation center. FDR also developed the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) whose goals were similar to many of his New Deal programs. In contrast to Goodwin’s focus on a single, but well known polio victim, Oshinsky focuses on the devastating effects of polio on children, families and communities in the context of the search for a life saving, viable vaccine. He focused on the work of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and Hilary Koprowski and the professional rivalry which existed between them. His primary focus is on Dr. Jonas Salk who was determined to develop a killed virus vaccine against poliomyelitis. Salk’s dream was realized in 1955 when the results of the summer 1954 Salk Field Studies were published. Oshinsky’s research revealed Dr. Salk, not only as the revered researcher who developed the polio vaccine which still bears his name, but also as a person who for reasons unknown to us never acknowledged his team’s role in the research and development of that vaccine.

Oshinsky also indicated that as a result of earlier questionable, political activities Dr. Salk was under the observation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as a suspected communist during the McCarthy era. No charges were ever brought against him and he was never summoned for a hearing. (146-149) Charges or the implication of communist beliefs would have ended his brilliant career before he discovered the polio vaccine. The McCarthy hearings, HUAC and Hoover’s FBI are discussed in more detail in George Lewis’ The White South And The Red Menace. David Oshinsky masterfully presents a scientific and medical history of poliomyelitis and the development of a safe, viable vaccine in the United States, revealing the ways in which science and medicine intersect with social, cultural, economic and political history. --Blclark 12:17, 23 September 2008 (UTC)

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