Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio: Books

Article excerpt

Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio By Gareth Williams Palgrave Macmillan, 336pp, Pounds 20.00 ISBN 9781137299758 Published 27 June 2013

Born in the comfort of the UK in the age of effective vaccination, polio for me meant Ian Dury, frontman of punk-era band the Blockheads. After becoming infected with the poliovirus in a swimming pool aged seven, he was left with a withered left arm and leg. In the terminology of the time, he was a "cripple". Dury was also a disability advocate, actor and artist, and latterly a pro-vaccination and anti-discrimination ambassador for Unicef until his death in 2000 from cancer.

Dury's polio generation features near the close of Gareth Williams' absorbing new history of the disease. It is preceded by a thorough dissection of the science of the poliovirus, its clinical course and the abortive therapies against the disease in the pre-vaccine era. After a brief resume of its pre-20th century history, Williams concentrates his gaze on the US, for it is here, he argues, that "the crippler" took on a persona that far exceeded its significance as a cause of mortality. From the early 20th century onwards, with children as polio's main victims, it seemed that school holidays were to be forever blighted by the spectre of iron lungs and leg frames. North America did suffer notable outbreaks, so the potential terror of the summer months was perhaps understandable. But, as personal accounts are woven into the story with consummate skill, Williams shows how the fear of polio was whipped up, if not manufactured, in the US. It came to be perceived as a peculiarly American problem that American genius would solve.

In this vein a key player is Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Flexner and the Rockefeller were part of a concerted drive to turn the US into a world leader in the medical sciences, but he looks far from heroic here. Although the poliovirus is most commonly spread by the faecal-oral route, droplet infection in the early stages is also possible. On this basis Flexner developed the idea that the poliovirus' main point of entry into the central nervous system was via the olfactory nerves that travel from the nose into the brain. He proved this to his satisfaction by subjecting large numbers of primates to unpleasant procedures. Swabs laced with poliovirus were forced high up into the nasal cavity and apparently led to paralytic polio as readily as when it was directly injected into the brain. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.