Polio: An American Story

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Overview

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 a 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.

The Salk vaccine trials were the largest public-health experiment in American history, involving more than a million school children. Both a gripping scientific suspense story and a provocative social and cultural history, Polio opens a fresh window onto postwar America.

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History

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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Ralph D. Arcari, Ph.D.(University of Connecticut Health Center)
Description: The author has successfully written for lay persons a history of the effort to eradicate polio in the United States. Major subjects include disease mechanisms, prevaccination treatments, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and the Salk (killed virus) vs. the Sabin (live virus) vaccine competition.
Purpose: The book's purpose is to provide insight into the political, economic, and scientific factors that resulted in the development of polio vaccines. Providing a window into the personalities and ambitions behind the ostensibly altruistic goal of disease eradication is a worthwhile reality lesson. The author is objective and evenhanded in his portrayal of the rivalries associated with development of a polio prevention vaccine.
Audience: The author is a university-based historian who has written well-received books on non-medical topics. The author is qualified to write for a lay audience, which he has done with this book. He is not qualified to write for medical professionals or biomedical researchers.
Features: After providing background chapters on polio as a disease; its most famous victim, the 32nd president of the United States; and the machinations of polio-related philanthropic foundations, the details of the competition between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin are fully explored. This book is a straightforward history with well-captioned photographs. A timeline for major polio events and a graph indicating the number of polio victims by year from 1900 - 2000 might have been useful.
Assessment: This book complements and updates Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine by Jane S. Smith (William Morrow, 1990). Both books are written for the nonprofessional. The Smith book, however, as its title indicates, focuses much more extensively on Salk. For a general overview of polio with an assessment of the careers of both Salk and Sabin and an update on the efforts of the WHO to eradicate polio worldwide, the Oshinsky book is recommended.
Jerome Groopman
David Oshinsky, a professor of history at the University of Texas, frames the conquest of polio within the cultural upheavals of the time. Polio: An American Story is a rich and illuminating analysis that convincingly grounds the ways and means of modern American research in the response to polio.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
A case of polio in Mecca during this year's hajj and the threat of the disease spreading received major attention in the New York Times. This is the year the World Health Organization has targeted for the elimination of polio worldwide, and 2005 is the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine which publishers are celebrating, perhaps prematurely. PW gave a starred review to Jeffrey Kluger's Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. Here are three more books on polio.POLIO: An American StoryDavid M. Oshinsky. Oxford Univ., $30 (432p) ISBN 0-19-515294-8. The key protagonists in historian Oshinsky's (Univ. of Texas, Austin) account of the bruising scientific race to create a vaccine are Jonas Salk, a proponent of a killed-virus vaccine, and Albert Sabin, who championed the live-virus vaccine. As revered as these men are in popular culture, Oshinsky records their contemporaries' less complimentary opinions (even Sabin's friends, for instance, describe him as arrogant, egotistical and occasionally cruel). Oshinsky (A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, etc.) looks at social context, too, such as the impact of the March of Dimes campaign on public consciousness and fear of polio. Tying in the role polio victim FDR played in making the effort a national priority, the precursory scientific developments that aided Salk and Sabin's work, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding human testing, Oshinsky sometimes bogs down in details. But all in all, this is an edifying description of one of the most significant public health successes in U.S. history. 46 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This well-grounded account documents the quest for a polio vaccine. It reveals professional rivalries and clinical breakthroughs, describes a new era in approaches to public philanthropy, and re-creates the tenor of American culture during the 1940s and '50s, when every city, suburb, and rural community faced potential tragedy from annual outbreaks of the disease. The decades-long contentious relationship between doctors Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk provides the centerpiece of this story. Virologists were split into two main camps: those pursuing the development of an attenuated live-virus vaccine versus those focusing on a killed-virus vaccine, with adherents of the latter believing it would prove not only safer and more effective, but also quicker and cheaper to mass produce. Historical context is provided by detailing how Franklin D. Roosevelt raised public awareness, how his influence led to the emergence of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes, and the subsequent creation of the "poster child" concept as a way of creating grassroots fundraising. The writing dramatically captures both tensions and ethical dimensions inherent in moving from laboratory work with monkeys to human experimentation and, eventually, to implementation of a massive inoculation program reaching 1.3 million schoolchildren in the 1954 Salk vaccine trials. While this part of the story and the public adulation of Salk have been told elsewhere, Oshinsky amplifies the tale with data explaining why the Sabin oral vaccine became the one preeminently adopted internationally, and why the debate has continued. Sixteen pages of arresting black-and-white photographs are included.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"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 Review


4 Stars! from Doody
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195152944
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/12/2005
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 724,179
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David M. Oshinsky is George Littlefield Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. A leading historian of modern American politics and society, he is the author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy and "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, both of which won major prizes and were New York Times Notable Books.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The First Epidemics 8
2 Warm Springs 24
3 "Cripples' Money" 43
4 "And They Shall Walk" 61
5 Poster Children, Marching Mothers 79
6 The Apprenticeship of Jonas Salk 92
7 Pathway to a Vaccine 112
8 The Starting Line 128
9 Seeing Beyond the Microscope 145
10 "Plague Season" 161
11 The Rivals 174
12 "The Biggest Public Health Experiment Ever" 188
13 The Cutter Fiasco 214
14 Mission to Moscow 237
15 Sabin Sundays 255
16 Celebrities and Survivors 269
Epilogue 287
Notes 289
Selected Bibliography 328
Acknowledgments 333
Index 335
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 10, 2013

    For the last several decades, I have read about a dozen books ab

    For the last several decades, I have read about a dozen books about polio, and this is by far the most informative.  The book would be better without Mr. Oshinsky's second-guessing of the people who actually lived through the frightening epidemics. As the saying goes, "hindsight is 20-20," and in fact, some of the beliefs that he laughingly mentions, turned out to be true. For example, he mentions that at the time of the epidemics, some people believed that germs were on money. And in fact, recent studies have consistenly proved that very fact; dollar bills are notorious for their abundance of E. Coli, and likely harbor other microbes, as well. But If you can get past the arrogant, cynical attitude of the author, you will likely be glad that you persevered. The book takes you behind the scenes, and at the end, you feel like you actually knew the key "players" in the race to discover a viable vaccine. And as a bonus, if you grew up in the late 1950s or early 1960s as I did, you will especially appreciate how the book "fills in the blanks;" you will be able to figure out whether you received the live or dead vaccine etc. If you only read one book about how polio affected America, this should be the one that you choose.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2012

    This is my review on Polio :an American story

    Hi, my name is Addison I am in 5th grade and i am doing a book project on this book. This book is very informitive if you are doing a report or reading to find interesting information. The book you are planing on reading(this book) would be a wounderful experience to read . I recomend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 21, 2011

    Great book about polio.

    This was an excellent review on the history of polio in the US and the pursuit of a vaccine. It's easy in today's world to forget polio once was a very serious disease in the US. The author did a good job translating the science of vaccine research into language the average person could understand. It also provides a nice historical context of government's expansion of public health.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 13, 2009

    Fascinating account of the polio story

    I noticed this book was mentioned in the credits of a PBS "American Experience" program on the polio epidemic, so I decided to read it. Dr. Oshinsky chronicles the paranoia, publicity, and politics of polio, as well as the race to develop a vaccine. There were costly errors in the early days of vaccine research and a number of false starts. Researchers were essentially battling each other, criticizing each other's methods and findings. There were problems with the vaccine manufacturing process that led to new cases of the disease. It was anything but a simple process. The entire book represents a fascinating account of the polio epidemic and eventual eradication of the disease. I found that I couldn't wait to read further to see what happened next.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2007

    Outstanding Story of Americas's Great Medical Crusade!

    Professor Oshinsky leads the reader into an unexpected and enlightening study of one of America's greatest triumphs and struggles in Medical History. Highly recommended for any student of history or medicine. Good page turner on a subject matter that usually is not fun to read about. Easy and Accessible. Oshinsky teaches at the University of Texas Austin.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2004

    Review of Polio: An American Story

    Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky was really, really interesting. I had no idea that polio was such an intense subject and that everyone was so terrified of getting it. To tell the truth I wasn¿t even positive what it was. I love how Oshinsky shows how vulnerable we were to such scares in America and how the fear of contracting polio spread like wildfire. He reveals in the book that polio was a lot more uncommon than the media led on, and that in postwar America there was no quicker and easier way to come together than fighting against a raging epidemic. My mom and her brother were born in the very early 50¿s, and I brought up polio when in the middle of this book. She told me how my grandmother wouldn¿t let them go swimming in public pools and how she had to get the polio vaccine when she was seven. She said my grandmother and her friends¿ moms were constantly worried about it, it became a daily part of life. She showed me a circle-like scar on her arm from the vaccine. I found out my dad had one as well. Hearing my parents talk about it made it seem very real. This book was really informative but it also left me in suspense- he painted a nervous America really well. I was always right with the people he described in hoping for a cure. Without being boring, Oshinsky talks about Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk, two rivals searching for the perfect vaccine. I think this book was a really interesting read because I found things out like how this is when the famous March of Dimes began and stuff like that, but it also had vivid stories of real people that tug at your heartstrings. -Stefanie

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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