April 2005

Sarah Statz


Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinky

The book is called Polio: An American Story, but it’s the subtitle that’s truly accurate. Wholesome and appropriately respectful of all institutions examined, from politicians to philanthropic institutes to scientists, David Oshinsky’s historical study seems as light on juicy details as the 1950s themselves, which are most often described as relentlessly and optimistically bland.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad book. It certainly covers the bases in its examination of the symptoms of poliomyelitis, which often include paralysis or, in extreme cases, death, as the virus that causes it travels to the central nervous system via the bloodstream in its victims. Likewise, both the history of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (and its infamous fundraising tool, the March of Dimes) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s struggle with the disease are exhaustively detailed. I say exhaustively and I mean exhaustively; somewhere in the middle of reading about Roosevelt’s campaign for and election to the governorship of New York in 1928, I started to wonder if the writer was trying to back into writing a political biography, rather than a medical history.

Things get back on track in the second half of the book, most notably with a rousing discussion of the differing methods and results of the two most well-known figures in the search for a vaccine, Jonas E. Salk and Albert Sabin, as well as a consideration of lesser known figures such as the volatile Hilary Koprowski and Isabel Morgan, a female scientist who Oshinksy suggests might have developed the first vaccine if she hadn’t resigned her position to become a homemaker.

Eventually Salk’s “killed virus” vaccine would triumph and be administered in trials to more than a million children in 1954; although it was widely hailed as the breakthrough that would halt polio, and Salk increasingly lauded as the savior of the country’s youth, a 1955 batch of the vaccine that was improperly produced in one of the contracting laboratories would cause more than 200 cases (some directly, some indirectly, as in family members of the inoculated children) of the disease. Five years later, in 1959, Sabin would oversee the inoculation of five million Russian children with his “live virus” vaccine.

Killed virus? Live virus? Oshinsky relates the difference between them, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of both, but not in any great detail. For readers who prefer history (which is, in all fairness, what the book is classified as) his description will be sufficient; for those readers who might have been more interested in the science of the disease or the ethical implications of injecting millions of children with relatively untried vaccines, the author’s analysis will feel slight.

Oshinsky concludes with a brief synopsis of the vaccines currently used, and includes just enough information about the controversy surrounding the use of virus-infected monkey organs for vaccine production to reference Debbie Bookchin’s and Jim Schumacher’s much more inflammatory book, The Virus and the Vaccine. As quickly as he brings that information up, he dispenses with it by citing studies that the current evidence is “inconclusive” with respect to the link between cancer and vaccination.

A professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Oshinsky is also 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.

One of the author’s main points is that, even at its worst, polio was never the numerical scourge that suburban Americans perceived it to be, which is an interesting tone to strike early in a narrative named for its medical subject matter. Although his treatment of the topic is serviceable and his prose readable, particularly by university press standards, his story ends up feeling as overblown as he himself seems to suggest the polio “epidemic” really was.

Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195152948
432 pages