Skip to main content

Polio: An American Story – David M. Oshinsky *****

Author David Oshinsky has done a masterful job of bringing to life the struggles to develop a vaccine against polio. I used the word struggles because it is not just a story of virus versus man. The story he weaves is exciting and compelling; it is so much more than the history of growing viruses and testing vaccines. The book is comprised of three intertwining storylines: the efforts of the March of Dimes campaign and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to raise money for research and patient care, the development of the killed vaccine by Jonas Salk, and the competition between the supporters of the killed vaccine and the supporters of a live, weakened vaccine, represented most vividly by Albert Sabin.
The story was extremely well-written and easy to follow. When I picked up the book, I thought that this will be a chauvinistic attempt by the author to demonstrate how the mighty United States was able to conquer a deadly disease all by itself. But I’ve always found the story of the polio vaccine very interesting and I even remember my mother saying how happy she was that the vaccine had became available when I was a child. Oshinsky does clearly prove that it is truly an American story: an American fund-raising campaign, an American president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) afflicted with the disease, and the American scientists striving to develop the first vaccine. But to Oshinsky’s credit, it is a very unbiased report. He points out the scare tactics used by the National Foundation and its then-novel method of fund-raising. He is also critical of the method of vaccine distribution and attributes vaccine shortages to industry and physicians’ desire to keep government out of medicine. He even contrasts this to Canada’s more successful policy of centralized distribution. And he is clear when there is a non-American connection, that is when studies of the live-weakened vaccine take place in the Soviet Union.
Oshinsky gives just the right amount of biographical information so that the reader understands why the main characters acted the way they did. He delves not only into the salient facts but also places events in the context of the personalities and the clashes that can occur among people of strong personalities. In order to understand the development of the vaccine, some understanding of the science is required and Oshinsky carefully leads the reader along. The politics of the development of the vaccine is also discussed. There wasn’t much that I didn’t like about the book and I would have no suggestions about how it could be improved. Indeed this book led me to another book about polio that I look forward to reading, The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, by P.A. Offit.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…