Polio: An American Story
David M. Oshinsky
Oxford University Press, USA, 2005
342 pp., $35.00
Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Harvard University Press, 2005
336 pp., $37.00
Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Julie K. Silver
Yale University Press, 2001
304 pp., $40.00
Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Daniel J. Wilson
University of Chicago Press, 2005
312 pp., $31.00
Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Oh No, Polio
Oshinsky, a University of Texas historian, traces the dramatic race to find a polio vaccine. Amid a large cast of characters, FDR and his associate at law, Basil O'Connor, play major roles. In the late 1940s, their March of Dimes tried house-to-house solicitations: "Turn On Your Porch Light! Help Fight Polio Tonight!" The Mothers' March on Polio, 2,300 strong by 1950, became "one of the indelible images of postwar America." Between 1951 and 1955, the NFIP raised $250 million. The money funded research and defrayed the medical costs of needy patients, with eighty percent qualifying.
Roosk's family was asked to pay a grand total of 24 dollars. Roosk's father vowed to repay the March of Dimes for the full bill.
Rival researchers Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin raced to create a workable vaccine. Salk, then at the University of Pittsburgh, got there first. The Salk vaccine trials of 1954 involved more than 1.3 million children, one of the largest clinical tests ever undertaken. The favorable outside evaluation announced in 1955 set off huge celebrations. Car horns honked; church bells rang out; banner headlines screamed, "Polio Is Conquered." The moment had come to re-punctuate "Oh no, polio" as "Oh, no polio." Salk appeared on Time magazine's cover and at President Eisenhower's White House. He accepted all too gladly the public's desire for a singular hero. At his coming-out news conference, Salk said not a word about the dedication of the many assistants ranging behind him onstage. Julius Youngner, for one, never forgot and never forgave. Fifty years later, he observed that Salk did nothing else of scientific note: "Being small-minded myself, I take some pleasure in that. Schadenfreude, it's called."
Roosk used to sell his blood for its antibodies, which went into a stopgap pre-vaccine serum. Salk put Roosk out of business.
If Salk was a glory-hog, Sabin was worse: "arrogant, egotistical, and cruel." He sneered at Salk's lionization: "You could go into the kitchen and do what he did." Salk's was a killed-virus vaccine. Sabin, who had been working at the University of Cincinnati on a live-virus vaccine, did not finish first because it is harder to attenuate live virus than to kill it. Sabin was the professionals' favorite. But Salk was the people's choice—until one batch of his vaccine went out with some live virus and caused five children to die. Salk is named among history's most famous scientists, but Sabin's vaccine triumphed, its victory cinched by its oral delivery system. By 1961, only a thousand new cases in the United States were reported.
Readers who want to know what it was like to be a polio victim should try Wilson. True, the Muhlenberg College historian opens with forbidding dissertationese and informs us dullards that polio narratives "slight the experience of polio patients who died during the acute phase of the illness" and that "the earliest narratives shape those that follow." Don't be discouraged. Citations from many narratives by "polios" spice the subsequent chapters. Wilson takes readers through the whole polio experience: the onset, the acute stage, early recovery in rehabilitation hospitals, life on the polio wards, the long process of recovery, the efforts to reestablish normal living, the demands of sustaining the new normalcy—and then, after all the travail, the return of the "old foe" in the guise of post-polio syndrome, when "Use it or lose it" becomes "Use it and lose it."
Wilson's book is a hall of mirrors for "polios." Anyone, for example, who underwent a spinal tap "never forgot it."
It hurt, hurt, hurt. Roosk never forgot her name: Dr. Brown.
"Forty and fifty years later, polio survivors still have vivid memories of the fun they had" on the polio wards.
Roosk's 24 days at St. Luke's were some of his happiest ever. Daytime was the best time for pranks; nights were for reading books under the covers by pen flashlight. Roosk didn't learn until later that his parents met a couple there who had a son and a daughter one weekend and neither the next.
Patients felt keenly the indignities of assisted use of urinals and bedpans.
Daily, some young nurse's aide placed her hand where Roosk didn't want her to.