In high school, my biology class went on a field trip to the Salk Institute, just a 15 minute drive from my hometown of San Diego, CA. At this point in my life, I knew Jonas Salk as the creator of the polio vaccine, but knew little else of him. Moreover, I knew little about the polio virus itself, which is why I decided to read Polio, An American Story by David M. Oshinsky.
Polio: An American Story provides a compelling account of not only the history of polio in the United States, but also the major players that contributed to our knowledge of polio, and the powerful legacy they left behind. Through a close and detailed historical analysis, the book offers a rich trove of factual information, while still preserving an almost narrative feel to it by delving deep into the stories that surround the facts.
Although known today as a debilitating, but largely preventable virus, thanks in part to the efforts of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin who respectively invented the inactivated and live-attenuated polio vaccines, Polio: An American Story acknowledges that the path towards vaccination was long, arduous, and sometimes downright scandalous. Oshinsky begins by depicting the historical context that allowed polio to come into the public consciousness. Personal hygiene played little role in the lives of the average person at the turn of the 20th century; the majority of people neither used soap nor toothbrushes. The advent of public health campaigns early in the 20th century dramatically changed this, paving the way for one of the largest public health campaigns to come into being when the Salk vaccine was tested in the 1950s. Furthermore, the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a presumed victim of polio, played a huge part in raising awareness for polio. Under his presidency, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, more commonly known as the March of Dimes, came into existence, dedicated to polio research.
Years of research - on how polio is transmitted, what that route of transmission is, and how many distinct strains of polio existed - finally resulted in an inactivated vaccine by Jonas Salk. This vaccine however, was not without its doubters and its own scandals. Notably, Albert Sabin, who was working on his own polio research at the time was vehemently opposed to the Salk vaccine, though his motives for doing so are questioned. Despite his legacy of success today however, Salk is portrayed as a calculated and sometimes selfish researcher, who, though revered by the people, was not always highly respected among his peers. The development of the Sabin vaccine - and the eventual recommendation that the Sabin vaccine replace the Salk vaccine due to its presumed higher effectiveness, continued the feud between Sabin and Salk even to their deathbed.
In all, Oshinky depicts a vivid landscape of polio research in the early-to-mid 1900s that draws on the many forgotten stories that led to the development of the polio vaccine. Although perhaps warranted, the end seems to be a race to the finish, with much less detail on the history of polio in the United States following the advent of vaccination. As a whole however, Polio: An American Story provides a thought-provoking, detailed, and insightful account of the history of polio in the United States that marries together story and fact into one fascinating read.