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Polio: An American Story


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Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history

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David M. Oshinsky is Professor of History at New York University and Director of the Division of Medical Humanities at the NYU School of Medicine. A leading historian of modern American politics and society, he is the author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy and "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, both of which won major prizes and were New York Times Notable Books.


The 50th anniversary of the approval of the Salk vaccine has inspired several authors to take a fresh look at the history of polio. While Jeffrey Kluger's recent Splendid Solution focuses on Jonas Salk and the challenges he faced, prize-winning author Oshinsky (history, Univ. of Texas, Austin) here provides a broader view of the search for a polio vaccine-and an objective and highly readable one at that. Relying heavily on personal papers from the archival collections of nearly every major player in the polio story, he covers the early days of the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its fund-raising efforts through the controversy over the pros and cons of killed versus live virus vaccines, before ending with a look at post-polio syndrome and the current status of the disease. Libraries with large health science collections will want both Kluger's and Oshinsky's analyses, but smaller libraries with limited budgets will be better served by Oshinsky's. [This month, the University of Chicago Press is publishing Daniel Wilson's Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors; in June, Harvard University Press will publish Marc Shell's Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture.-Ed.]-Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

"A rich and illuminating analysis.... The story of polio captures all the drama of high-profile and high-stakes research in an America in social flux: the tension between sober scientists and sensationalistic media; experimental disagreements grounded more in envy and ego than in technical details and data; contested credit for breakthroughs between those who labor at the laboratory bench and those who work at the patient's bedside."--Jerome Groopman, The New York Times Book Review "Narrative history doesn't get much better.... Oshinsky illuminates Salk's competitors...and after Salk's triumph, he turns to Albert Sabin, whose live-virus vaccine became officially preferred before mass immunization with Salk's was finished. He confirms...that Sabin was a real SOB as well as a good scientist, but...airs trenchant criticism of Salk, too. Further, he brings the story down to the recent reemergence of Salk's vaccine and the present, when the WHO hopes for polio's ultimate eradication in 2008."--Booklist (starred review) "Teases out the broader context of polio as a historian should."--Financial Times "An easily approachable yet factually rich narrative.... Oshinsky provides a very readable and enlightening history that also can be appreciated as good storytelling."--Science "Excellent.... Oshinsky does a good job of recounting famous tales from the war on polio.... The book also unearths some of the fascinating forgotten stories."--The Economist "Readable, often exciting, filled with ambitious characters, it is science writing at its most engrossing.... Oshinsky brings to compelling life the work and conflicts among these researchers and their killed-versus-live-virus approaches..... 'Polio: An American Story' is definitive, an accessible and memorable account of the great American gift for, occasionally, pulling together across generations, races and economic divisions."--Floyd Skloot, Newsday "Oshinsky vividly retells one of the greatest of all American success stories and reveals the clash of egos and interests, science and salesmanship that made it possible. Its fresh details will fascinate both those too young to remember polio's scourge and those of us who experienced it firsthand."--Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt "As we live through modern-day epidemics like AIDS and SARS, David Oshinsky's compelling Polio reminds us that the struggle is over more than a disease. In this riveting story of America's battle with polio, we learn that government, philanthropy, media, 'big science,' and public fear were all powerful factors to be reckoned with as well. If polio no longer plagues America, its legacy shadows us still. Be prepared for an infectious read."--Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America "The fight against polio was a landmark in medicine, and anyone interested in American history or epidemiology would enjoy reading this account."--Science News "Polio: An American Story is a comprehensive and succinct detailing of a disease that caused public panic and a national mobilization of all arenas to research and find a solution to this menace...[This book] serves as a blueprint for confronting future public health challenges and a reminder of the success that can be achieved when all efforts are mobilized to work toward a solution from a problem affecting a nation's population."--Nursing History Review

Adult/High School-This well-grounded account documents the quest for a polio vaccine. It reveals professional rivalries and clinical breakthroughs, describes a new era in approaches to public philanthropy, and re-creates the tenor of American culture during the 1940s and '50s, when every city, suburb, and rural community faced potential tragedy from annual outbreaks of the disease. The decades-long contentious relationship between doctors Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk provides the centerpiece of this story. Virologists were split into two main camps: those pursuing the development of an attenuated live-virus vaccine versus those focusing on a killed-virus vaccine, with adherents of the latter believing it would prove not only safer and more effective, but also quicker and cheaper to mass produce. Historical context is provided by detailing how Franklin D. Roosevelt raised public awareness, how his influence led to the emergence of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes, and the subsequent creation of the "poster child" concept as a way of creating grassroots fundraising. The writing dramatically captures both tensions and ethical dimensions inherent in moving from laboratory work with monkeys to human experimentation and, eventually, to implementation of a massive inoculation program reaching 1.3 million schoolchildren in the 1954 Salk vaccine trials. While this part of the story and the public adulation of Salk have been told elsewhere, Oshinsky amplifies the tale with data explaining why the Sabin oral vaccine became the one preeminently adopted internationally, and why the debate has continued. Sixteen pages of arresting black-and-white photographs are included.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

A case of polio in Mecca during this year's hajj and the threat of the disease spreading received major attention in the New York Times. This is the year the World Health Organization has targeted for the elimination of polio worldwide, and 2005 is the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine?which publishers are celebrating, perhaps prematurely. PW gave a starred review to Jeffrey Kluger's Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. Here are three more books on polio.POLIO: An American StoryDavid M. Oshinsky. Oxford Univ., $30 (432p) ISBN 0-19-515294-8. The key protagonists in historian Oshinsky's (Univ. of Texas, Austin) account of the bruising scientific race to create a vaccine are Jonas Salk, a proponent of a killed-virus vaccine, and Albert Sabin, who championed the live-virus vaccine. As revered as these men are in popular culture, Oshinsky records their contemporaries' less complimentary opinions (even Sabin's friends, for instance, describe him as arrogant, egotistical and occasionally cruel). Oshinsky (A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, etc.) looks at social context, too, such as the impact of the March of Dimes campaign on public consciousness?and fear?of polio. Tying in the role polio victim FDR played in making the effort a national priority, the precursory scientific developments that aided Salk and Sabin's work, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding human testing, Oshinsky sometimes bogs down in details. But all in all, this is an edifying description of one of the most significant public health successes in U.S. history. 46 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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