Polio: An American Story

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Oshinsky, David M. Polio: An American Story: The Crusade that Mobilized the Nation Against the 20th Century's Most Feared Disease. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Summary

David Oshinsky's 2005 Polio: An American Story, is a history of the fight to eradicate polio in the 20th century. Polio became one of the most, if not THE most, feared diseases of the century due to the influence and example of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was stricken with the disease as an adult in 1921. Owner of a Warm Springs, GA resort dedicated to polio rehabilitation(where he died in 1945), Roosevelt needed to raise funds to keep the resort operational. In 1934, he allowed planners to throw a nationwide series of birthday parties (over 6,000) for him to raise money for the care of polio survivors and for the upkeep of Warm Springs. The success of these parties and recognition that the key to raising money during the Great Depression was reliance on small donations from the public formed the basis for the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, quickly known as the March of Dimes.

The National Foundation directed and funded almost all the polio research in the United States, as well as supporting polio survivors and providing for their care. All their money came through private donations, and for a long time, the National Foundation was by far the most successful charity in the United States, pioneering such philanthropic techniques as the "poster child." Funds raised were given as grants to scientists working to study and eradicate the threat of polio. The National Foundation also served to streamline a lot of earlier research, eventually developing a list of priorities and funding them in the order of the scientific developments needed to find a vaccine.

Oshinsky's book also contains a series of biographical sketches about the many scientists involved in the development of a vaccine for polio, from John Enders, whose team discovered that polio cells could grow in organs other than nervous tissue (which meant that these cells could be used for a vaccine--humans can have severe reactions to injection of simian nervous tissue) to Jonas Salk, famous for pioneering the killed-virus vaccine, to Albert Sabin, pioneer of the live-virus vaccine.

Much of the book details the rivalry between Salk and Sabin, both of whom could be difficult personalities and had a lifelong personal disdain for the other. Sabin attacked Salk's vaccine as soon as it was announced, and saw vindication in an early vaccine mishap that actually caused polio in a number of vaccinated children. While Salk received the praise and glory for the discovery, Sabin's vaccine was used in the United States instead of the Salk vaccine from the early 1960s-the 2000s, when the medical profession returned to Salk's vaccine (ironically, because Sabin's vaccine was causing polio in children with immune disorders).

The Cold War and American society in the 1950s provide the context for the narrative. Salk as temporarily threatened to be revealed as a Communist sympathizer, as he had participated in several left-leaning organizations after medical school. When the vaccine was developed, bureaucrats had to figure out how to get the vaccine to black children, who were not allowed in the white schools for vaccination. Much of the fear of polio and the rise of outbreaks in the early 1950s came from a post-war baby boom and a new generation of parents taught by Dr. Benjamin Spock, who approached parenthood as a job one could learn and conquer. That polio was a threat to children was seen to be a failure of good parenting; clearly affected children were not clean, were too cold, didn't get enough sleep, exerted too much energy. When the Salk vaccine was first announced, President Eisenhower volunteered the recipe to the world as a gesture of international goodwill. In fact, the Soviet Union saw the first major trials of the Sabin vaccine, during which millions of Soviet schoolchildren were vaccinated. It was a show of faith in the United States, though the moment did not raise popular interest in the United States.

Above all, Oshinsky's book describes the eradication of polio as a uniquely American, truly democratic event. Though there were definite scientific and personal rivalries involved, the polio vaccines were developed based on various scientific breakthroughs nationwide, breakthroughs that were funded by the American people. The scientists who worked on polio were immigrants, children of immigrants, and those whose families had been in the United States for generations. Though polio persists in small pockets of the world, it has largely been eradicated thanks to the work of American scientists and the support of the American people.

Commentary

Becky Erbelding, Spring 2010

Oshinsky's book is very well written and engaging (as evidenced by his 2006 Pulitzer prize for history for this book). While obviously a very positive and patriotic book, in many ways it is hard not to be. Oshinsky successfully argues that the eradication of polio was a challenge accepted by American citizens and scientists, and was funded and developed almost exclusively without government intervention or interference. In fact, when the vaccine was discovered, citizens grew angry at the resistance of the Eisenhower administration to become involved in facilitating the dispersal of the vaccine; though they eventually did become involved, the administration believed that the National Foundation had done so well in the private sector that government intervention was not needed (to say nothing for the fear of being accused of promoting "socialized medicine").

The book is organized chronologically with some natural overlapping. Oshinsky does a nice job of providing context, from a discussion of cleanliness standards at the turn of the 20th century to the fear of epidemic disease during World War II which temporarily distracted scientists working on viral epidemiology. At the same time, a discussion of polio worldwide would have been helpful, as well as whether or not the vaccine was seen as a potential Cold War negotiating tool. Though Eisenhower announces that the recipe would be available to all, it would be interesting to see if there had been discussion about using the vaccine in a more calculated way. Oshinsky's polio story is told in a way that is completely divorced from a lot of Cold War tensions and competitions that must have played a role in the development of a vaccine.

Though less useful as a tool to understand the post-war world, Polio: An American Story is a nice microhistory of the development of a vaccination for a dreaded childhood disease, one that created incredible fear among millions of baby boom parents and created a hero out of Dr. Jonas Salk, who led the team that first developed the killed virus vaccine.

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