Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Comparative Review of Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio by Jeffrey Kluger,

Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors by Daniel J. Wilson,

and Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Polio! For people old enough to remember the mid 1950s, that word -- short for poliomyelitis -- evokes powerful memories. Before mass immunization began, polio was the most feared communicable disease in America. Nationwide inoculations began within weeks of the announcement on April 12,1955 (the tenth anniversary of the death of the world's most famous polio victim, Franklin Delano Roosevelt) that the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas E. Salk of the University of Pittsburgh was "safe, effective, and potent."

Fifty years later, as the World Health Organization is zeroing in on the world's last remaining pockets of wild poliovirus, three new books look back at disease and its conquest. All are likely to find large and appreciative audiences. And all readers of "a certain age" will find their reaction to those books colored by their own recollections of a half-century ago.

I was ten years old and living three miles from Dr. Salk's laboratory when that inoculation campaign began. An iconic photo from that period shows Salk himself injecting one of my fellow students at Colfax School. Perhaps he injected me, too, but I remember willingly standing in line for my first polio shot for another reason. My best friend Roger had the disease at age two or three. It didn't leave him in clunky iron leg braces like some of our classmates or in an iron lung like the children pictured in fund-raising advertising, but it left him in fragile health. He died suddenly and unexpectedly not long after his ninth birthday. Polio might not have been the direct cause of Roger's death, but eighteen months later, I was thinking of my friend when that needle entered my arm.

I thought of Roger again as I read these books. To me, as to most of the American populace, Dr. Salk was a hero. How many other children would have lost their best friends if he had not developed his vaccine? Why did he choose medical research, and what brought him to my hometown to do it?

To answer those questions, I eagerly picked up Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio by Jeffrey Kluger, coauthor of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. Splendid Solution is a largely uncritical look at Salk and his work, juxtaposed with the larger story of the history of polio and its near eradication. The story includes a bit of deftly handled science, making clear the distinction between Salk's killed-virus injected vaccine and the live-virus oral vaccine developed later by Dr. Albert Sabin. Sabin's vaccine quickly overtook Salk's as the world standard, but in a remarkable twist of history, the World Health Organization will have to call on the Salk vaccine to finish off polio for good. Although the Sabin vaccine has been vitally important in nearly eliminating polio, its attenuated live virus occasionally mutates back to a virulent form.

Paralleling the scientific and personal stories, Mr. Kluger recounts the unmatched fund-raising of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which created the March of Dimes and later took that name. The NFIP's publicity reinforced Salk's image as hero to the millions of ordinary citizens who supported its work. That public adulation contrasted with the opinions held by many of Salk's academic rivals, most notably Sabin, who considered Salk an academic lightweight and publicity hound. Splendid Solution presents the facts of that rivalry, but with a clear bias toward Salk. It is, after all, his biography. The life, personality, and motivations of the prickly Sabin are presented in much less detail.

Readers seeking a more balanced view of the two prongs in the battle against polio and a more nuanced portrayal of Sabin will prefer Polio: An American Story by University of Texas history professor and award-winning author David Oshinsky. Though slightly more academic in flavor than Splendid Solution, this book benefits from Mr. Oshinsky's comfortable style and skillful storytelling. The two books cover much the same territory, but they illuminate it from different perspectives. Readers can read both in quick succession, as I did, without a sense of repetition. Instead, they will appreciate a more complete picture produced by complementary views.

Both of those books also describe the overwhelming response of the American public to the NFIP's appeals, due mainly to the foundation's connection to FDR. But going beyond the story of one heroic survivor who became governor of New York and then president of the United States are the experiences recounted in Living With Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors by Muhlenberg College history professor Daniel J. Wilson. Prof. Wilson goes beyond the superficial images of polio wards, iron lungs, braces, and crutches. His book presents in vivid detail the history of the disease and its impact on its victims and their families. A polio survivor himself, he skillfully draws on more than 100 personal narratives to present the varied chronologies of lives affected by the disease.

No two experiences with polio are alike, but they all follow the same progression: diagnosis, acute symptoms, rehabilitation, life on the polio ward, going home, resuming life, living with limitations, and facing post-polio syndrome. Though Prof. Wilson is clearly a biased observer, his research benefits from asking questions that could only come from one who has lived through the disease. Because of the subject matter, it's not an easy book to read but well worth the effort.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers, including the upcoming Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel.