Epidemics have been a part of mankind for thousands of years. At some point in time, humanity has been threatened with the possibility of extinction in the form a new disease that had not yet been understood by doctors and government officials. In the United States, there was a disease that caused widespread panic and afflicted millions of Americans before it was contained. Its most-famous victim was former President Franklin D. Roosevelt who became known as the “Wheelchair President”. The disease was officially designated poliomyelitis or polio for short. To this day, it remains one of America’s deadliest epidemics next to AIDS and cancer which continues to claim lives each year. The origins of polio are mysterious and the successful creation of a vaccine was the result of the hard work and dedication of the greatest virologists who rose to the occasion to save the nation from a deadly disease. Today the disease is largely forgotten and taken for granted. A diagnosis of polio is exceedingly rare and in the event it is detected, vaccines are readily available to contain the virus and give the patient a long and happy life. However, less than sixty years ago the race to find a vaccine was hotly contested as Americans and the world lived in suspense at the possible eradication of a silent killer. Two doctors on opposites ends of the spectrum are forever linked with the disease and the successful campaign to eliminate it; Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk. This is the story of polio and the two physicians that have become legends in American history. The book is presented to us by David Oshinsky, author and Pulitzer Prize winner who also published Bellevue: Three Centuries Of Medicine And Mayhem At America’s Most Storied Hospital. Contained within these pages is the incredible story of the monumental effort to find a cure for the disease that threatened to eliminate the population of an entire nation and struck fear in the hearts and minds of households everywhere.
Albert Sabin died in 1993 and Jonas Salk two years later in 1995. By the time of their deaths, polio had nearly been eradicated in the United States with isolated cases appearing on occasion. If they were alive today, I believe they would both feel vindicated even more by the rare existence of the polio disease in the United States today and in most parts of the world except for countries in Africa which still continue to struggle with the deadly disease. The true irony of Sabin and Salk as we see through the account by Oshinsky, is that although they both sought a vaccine to save people from polio, they did so from opposite ends and maintained their stances until their deaths. Salk became the first to claim popularity through the creation of his killed virus vaccine. Several years later, Sabin would be the hero with his live virus vaccine. The vaccines pitted them against each other in a long and protracted battled from which they would never reconcile. Once colleagues and later adversaries, both would be vindicated years after their deaths.
Oshinksy’s research is beyond reproach and readers familiar with his other works will readily agree. The book is engaging from the start as we trace the origins of the epidemic and learn a multitude of facts about the virus that will challenge common held beliefs. Social status, wealth, ethnicity and professional competition serve as regrettable undercurrents that on occasion caused setbacks and put the battle for a cure in a negative light. And the actions of the Eisenhower administration towards the disease are shocking and mind-boggling. The behind the scenes trivialities that occur serve as a premonition of the AIDS epidemic in which political ambitions and career advancements take center stage nearly overshadowing the main goal. Thankfully, the doctors were successful and polio is no longer the killer in America that it once was.
This book is a step back into time in an era in America that would shock most readers today. World Wars, racial and class discrimination in the early stages of the fight but the revelation of how polio affected people challenges all of the notions that were held about social status and health. It also reinforces the point that viruses do not discriminate and epidemics claim victims across all cultures. And in some cases, the relatives of those tasked with finding the cure are also afflicted highlighting the severity of the growing crisis. Furthermore, the battle between the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and Health, Education and Warfare Department cast a dark blemish on the cause. The scandal of Cutter Laboratories and new cases of polio following the inoculations of the vaccines nearly caused a new widespread panic. As we know through history, the government and the doctors pressed on with Sabin’s live virus vaccine becoming the standard for over thirty years before Salk’s killed virus once again rose to prominence in 2003. Regardless of the order of introduction or range of administration, both vaccines played a crucial role in the eradication of the disease and cemented Sabin and Salk’s legacies. Oshinsky has done a service to both physicians in telling the story of their never-ending efforts to save America.