Polio: An American Story

Polio: An American Story

Polio: An American Story

Polio: An American Story


Here 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. 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. He 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.

Oshinsky offers an insightful look at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was founded in the 1930s by FDR and Basil O'Connor, it revolutionized fundraising and the perception of disease in America. Oshinsky also shows how the polio experience 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.


San Angelo in 1949 was pure West Texas, a county seat of 50,000 people between Abilene and the Mexican border at Del Rio, set in a vast landscape of farm fields, oil wells, and cattle ranches trimmed in barbed wire. Like so many other towns of that era, it had sprung to life during World War II, nearly doubling its population with the expansion of a military air base at Goodfellow Field. As thousands of people arrived, and thousands more returned home from the war, San Angelo found itself connected to the larger world in vital, sometimes dangerous, new ways.

The late 1940s were flush years in the United States. A booming economy encouraged Americans to marry, start a family, buy a house, consume. In San Angelo as elsewhere, the pain and sacrifice of the Great Depression and World War II had been replaced by a more optimistic vision of material comfort and economic success. The town continued to prosper and expand. In 1949, the San Angelo StandardTimes predicted a golden future, linking prosperity, among other things, to the region's warm climate and "health-giving" reputation.

On May 20, a small blot on this bright picture appeared. The newspaper reported that a local child had come down with poliomyelitis. San Angelo had endured minor outbreaks before. The disease touched down in the late spring, like hailstorms and tornadoes, but had never really spread. There was mild concern, nothing more.

Within days, concern had turned to alarm. Parents began arriving at Shannon Memorial Hospital with "feverish, aching youngsters in their arms." Twenty-five polio cases were confirmed by the medical . . .

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