02 March 2012

'Polio: An American Story,' by David Oshinsky

Poliomyelitis was a uniquely frightening disease in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Good sanitation generally diminishes the threat of infectious agents, and the widespread adoption of soap and indoor plumbing during the early 20th century had reduced the prevalence of scourges such as black plague, tuberculosis, and typhoid. Yet polio became more menacing as sanitation improved. Because Americans were not exposed to polio as infants, they did not gain immunity early in life. American children became increasingly susceptible to fierce outbreaks of polio that left some paralyzed. The seeming randomness of where polio struck and the life-long toll on its sufferers' bodies mobilized the public to find a vaccine.

'Polio: An American Story' chronicles American medical research's coming of age as well as its loss of innocence. Oshinsky also recounts the fierce and sometimes ugly rivalry between the researchers who tried to win the race to develop a vaccine. In creating the first successful polio virus, Jonas Salk became the first researcher-celebrity. Salk deviated from scientific tradition by leaking his results to the press before they were published in scientific journals. In the book, Salk appears tragically flawed, a keen and enterprising scientist whose selfish and heterodox actions earn the derision of his colleagues.

Oshinsky profiles the March of Dimes, a charity that pioneered the use of heavy advertising and celebrity power to combat disease. March of Dimes created a national army of volunteers (primarily mothers) who fund-raised to support polio victims and develop a vaccine. The degree of public support was extraordinary: over two-thirds of Americans donated to the March of Dimes.

Lastly, the reader also witnesses the triumph and hubris of the vaccination effort. With the public clamoring to receive Salk's polio vaccine, government oversight was relaxed, the manufacturing was rushed, and a handful of lots proved to be contaminated with live virus. The resulting paralysis of dozens of children greatly damaged the public's trust in medicine and forced federal government to regulate more strictly the practice of medicine.

The book was fascinating for showing the origins of the politicization of science in modern America. I was also struck by how short our collective memories are: just 60 years ago the public was desperate for a polio vaccine, and many parents unhesitatingly signed their children up to be the first to receive the experimental vaccine. When it was announced that the polio vaccine was a success, it triggered a national celebration. Yet today, some see vaccines and scientists as the enemy. The public's ignorance of the lessons of the past threaten to undermine our progress in combating disease. It's so that I am not doomed to repeat history that I enjoy reading books like Oshinsky's about the history of infectious disease.