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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.

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Review by Stephen Goldberg

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