All who lived in the early 1950s remember the fear of polio and the elation felt when a successful vaccine was found. Now 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.
Here is a remarkable portrait of America in the early 1950s, using the widespread panic over polio to shed light on our national obsessions and fears. 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. Indeed, the competition was marked by a deep-seated ill will among the researchers that remained with them until their deaths. The author 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. As backdrop to this feverish research, Oshinsky offers an insightful look at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was founded in the 1930s by FDR and Basil O'Connor. The National Foundation revolutionized fundraising and the perception of disease in America, using "poster children" and the famous March of Dimes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from a vast army of contributors (instead of a few well-heeled benefactors), creating the largest research and rehabilitation network in the history of medicine. The polio experience also 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.
"A rich and illuminating analysis.... The story of polio captures all the drama of high-profile and high-stakes research in an America in social flux: the tension between sober scientists and sensationalistic media; experimental disagreements grounded more in envy and ego than in technical details and data; contested credit for breakthroughs between those who labor at the laboratory bench and those who work at the patient's bedside."--Jerome Groopman, The
New York Times Book Review
"Narrative history doesn't get much better.... Oshinsky illuminates Salk's competitors...and after Salk's triumph, he turns to Albert Sabin, whose live-virus vaccine became officially preferred before mass immunization with Salk's was finished. He confirms...that Sabin was a real SOB as well as a good scientist, but...airs trenchant criticism of Salk, too. Further, he brings the story down to the recent reemergence of Salk's vaccine and the present, when the
WHO hopes for polio's ultimate eradication in 2008."--Booklist (starred review)
"Teases out the broader context of polio as a historian should."--Financial Times
"An easily approachable yet factually rich narrative.... Oshinsky provides a very readable and enlightening history that also can be appreciated as good storytelling."--Science
"Excellent.... Oshinsky does a good job of recounting famous tales from the war on polio.... The book also unearths some of the fascinating forgotten stories."--The Economist
"Readable, often exciting, filled with ambitious characters, it is science writing at its most engrossing.... Oshinsky brings to compelling life the work and conflicts among these researchers and their killed-versus-live-virus approaches..... 'Polio: An American Story' is definitive, an accessible and memorable account of the great American gift for, occasionally, pulling together across generations, races and economic divisions."--Floyd Skloot, Newsday
"Oshinsky vividly retells one of the greatest of all American success stories and reveals the clash of egos and interests, science and salesmanship that made it possible. Its fresh details will fascinate both those too young to remember polio's scourge and those of us who experienced it firsthand."--Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
"As we live through modern-day epidemics like AIDS and SARS, David Oshinsky's compelling Polio reminds us that the struggle is over more than a disease. In this riveting story of America's battle with polio, we learn that government, philanthropy, media, 'big science,' and public fear were all powerful factors to be reckoned with as well. If polio no longer plagues America, its legacy shadows us still. Be prepared for an infectious read."--Lizabeth
Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
"The fight against polio was a landmark in medicine, and anyone interested in American history or epidemiology would enjoy reading this account."--Science News
"Polio: An American Story is a comprehensive and succinct detailing of a disease that caused public panic and a national mobilization of all arenas to research and find a solution to this menace...[This book] serves as a blueprint for confronting future public health challenges and a reminder of the success that can be achieved when all efforts are mobilized to work toward a solution from a problem affecting a nation's population."--Nursing History