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Polio: An American Story
Polio: An American Story
David M. Oshinsky
Oxford University Press, 2005
368 pp., $35.00

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Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Marc Shell
Harvard University Press, 2005
336 pp., $37.00

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Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Julie K. Silver
Yale University Press, 2001
304 pp., $35.00

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Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Daniel J. Wilson
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
312 pp., $31.00

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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.


Oh No, Polio

A disease that left its mark.

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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Books & Culture, taking note of a cluster of books occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine.

"Hey, driver! Hold up!" a voice cried from the bus' back door. "I can't wake up my buddy, and he's gotta get off here." Two boys were coming home from a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and Richie, age ten, finally got Roosk, age nine, off the bus and down the half block to home. Roosk told his mom he was tired and dropped on his bed, not hearing her ask if he was ok. "Oh no, polio? Please God, not polio." Thus did she pray the prayer of all Chicago parents in the epidemic year of 1949. Roosk woke up 16 hours later with a fever. Doc Olson came over, did doctor things, and announced, "No polio." Later, Doc said to take the boy to the church's family-week camp. "I'll be there and can keep an eye on him."

Polio was no respecter of persons. The most famous victim was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Super Crip" crusaded against the plague by helping establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), later known as the March of Dimes, the greatest health-related fund-raiser ever. Other notables stricken were Justice William O. Douglas, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, track star Wilma Rudolph, actress Mia Farrow, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, writer Wilfred Sheed, scholar Edward Le Comte, and … and Hitler's propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

The first major polio epidemic in the United States hit in 1916, spreading out from New York City, and for the next 39 years, the public simply took what poliovirus dished out. In the 1920s and 1930s, the annual rate of cases was 4 per 100,000; by the early 1940s, the rate doubled; by the late 1940s, it redoubled; by the early 1950s, it had reached 25 per 100,000, with a peak of 37 per in 1952. Between 1937 and 1955, 415,624 cases were reported, 57,879 in 1952 alone. Newspapers ran tallies of local victims—like baseball box scores—by age, sex, type of paralysis. The United States has 1.6 million living polio survivors, 600,000 of whom show ongoing effects; comparable figures for the world are 24 million and 7.5 million. Fears that vaccination is part of the West's conspiracy to commit genocide keep polio from being stamped out worldwide.

Polio is a viral intestinal infection; it is contagious. Polio is difficult to diagnose early, because its typical symptoms are the common ones of fever, headache, sore throat, muscle pains, and nausea. Poliovirus is carried by fecal waste and enters the body through the mouth. It then attacks nerve cells. Surviving nerves can sprout new connections to the "orphaned" muscles, thus doing double duty. This neurological disease is erratic, is relatively seldom fatal, and can leave temporary or permanent paralysis as an aftereffect. The legs are the favorite target of spinal polio, the most common type. Bulbar polio, the other familiar type, attacks the brain stem (bulb), impairs swallowing and breathing, and is deadlier; iron lungs are used for this type.

At the camp Roosk's gait had become stiff-legged and ungainly. Other mothers hurried their children indoors. The family women got him into the cabin. Said one aunt, "I don't care if it is polio; he's our Rooskie Boy." When Doc arrived, one look and he said, "Oh no, it's polio. Sometimes we can't tell until paralysis sets in. Take my wife's car and drive the boy straight to the Municipal Contagious Disease Hospital." For all seventy-five miles back to Chicago, Gram prayed aloud.

Polio is, counterintuitively, "a disease of cleanliness." Until modern hygiene and sanitation kicked in, newborns picked up the virus from their mothers, but in mild doses that produced the antibodies needed for lifelong inoculation. Thus, the cleaner, the riskier; the better, the worse.

A hospital doctor stuck a huge needle right into Roosk's spine. It hurt, hurt, hurt. Then came three long days in a men's ward where, as Roosk remembers it, no one spoke. His parents wrote chalkboard signs that he read through two walls of glass. Did he want ice cream? No. A newspaper? He shook no again. That's when they got really scared.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Salk vaccine in 2005 has brought forth a raft of books about polio, four of which are sampled here. David Oshinsky writes the definitive history of the war against polio in America. Daniel Wilson traces the experience of polio from beginning to end. Marc Shell subjects polio to a cultural-studies examination of the disease and of all the books, movies, and assorted cultural artifacts directly or obliquely related to it. Julie Silver offers practical advice on how to manage the post-polio syndrome.

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