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Polio: An American Story

3.97  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,860 Ratings  ·  261 Reviews
Here David Oshinsky tells the gripping story of the polio terror and of the intense effort to find a cure, from the March of Dimes to the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines--and beyond. Drawing on newly available papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and other key players, Oshinsky paints a suspenseful portrait of the race for the cure, weaving a dramatic tale centered ...more
Paperback, 342 pages
Published September 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press (first published 2005)
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103rd out of 1,114 books — 1,394 voters
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10th out of 90 books — 63 voters

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Community Reviews

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Jan 22, 2009 Clif rated it liked it
My older brother died before I was born due to bulbar polio in 1949. As a result, my parents decided to try again so I can say I am here due to polio.

Naturally this book caught my eye when I spotted in on a friend's bookshelf and reading it I discovered how little I knew about the disease and the people involved with finding a cure.

The book can be divided into two parts - the first dealing with the period up to the death of FDR (who had the disease) and the second dealing with the effort to find
Feb 14, 2009 Jetta rated it it was amazing
As has been said, this book reads like a mystery. Fascinating details about the disease, its history, the times, the medicine, the pain, the people who fought to eradicate it and the politics. I realized that I was one of the children on whom the vaccine was tested in 1954. I remember clearly being taken in to the cafeteria at St. Austin's School and being lined up to get the shot. I am told I cried but don't remember that part! Of course, at eight years, I had no idea of the controversy and the ...more
Aug 27, 2013 Gab rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great turn of events surrounding post WWII. The advancements in cleanliness with the sprawling of the suburbs brought about an awakening of a common disease that usually young children are exposed to and built immunity against quickly. Boys were especially hit hard and class distinction played a part where the middle class was more susceptible. War brought with it field studies involving vaccinations for flu and yellow fever so fighting polio would have a laid out plan to follow.
Polio was rea
Aug 05, 2014 Zach rated it liked it
It's interesting that the polio vaccine is hailed as a scientific milestone when the disease was relatively rare in the US. I didn't know much about polio prior to reading this, and had pictured it as a public health threat just below that of the Spanish flu of 1918. However, its incidence (100,000 cases in 1954) was trumped up by the incredible funding provided by the March of Dimes, which, in turn, was funded by polio's most visible victim, Franklin Roosevelt. I would have loved a story of the ...more
Jun 12, 2010 Ashley rated it liked it
Oshinsky struck a perfect balance with this book - a detailed, intricate history told in an organized concise manner. Not knowing much about polio, this book was the perfect education.

While polio is often portrayed as an epidemic that raged throughout the 1940s and 1950s, in actuality, ten times as many children during those two decades would be killed in accidents and three times that number from cancer. However, polio had the benefit of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, forerun
Mar 22, 2011 Hillary rated it it was amazing
Warning,-long review, spoiler alert, they find a vaccine for POLIO
Polio, An American Story isn’t just a book about infantile paralysis in the 1950’s, it’s a book rich with American history and while I generally am loathsome of such detail and find it distracting to the main point, I couldn’t get enough of it in this book and found the authors extraordinary detail only enlightening.
Oshinsky begins by explaining that the state of the American Medical institutions in the 1900 was both dangerous an
Jan 28, 2013 Trena rated it it was amazing
Fascinating, well-written book. The book sort of starts with FDR as the impetus behind the national crusade against polio. I was planning to judge the author harshly if he didn't acknowledge current theories that FDR had not been struck by polio but by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which as an armchair diagnostician I find convincing based on his age and the bilateral involvement. Oshinsky passed the test.

The book covers both the social and the scientific angles, describing equally adeptly the birth
Ana Rusness-petersen
Aug 05, 2012 Ana Rusness-petersen rated it it was amazing
I set out to read "Polio: An American Story" as a window into better understanding the culture at the height of polio and the experience my dad likely had as a victim of polio. This ended up being a great book that taught me a lot about the history and experience of polio, as well as a great deal about the process of vaccine creation and politics.

This book traces the polio virus from its earliest emergence ultimately to 2005, the year this book was published. It definitely has as its backbone th
Jan 30, 2010 Tim rated it it was amazing
I read this Pulitzer Prize winner on the recommendation of Dan Jewett, Social Studies Chair at Manchester Essex RHS. As a polio victim myself (at age 5 in 1952), I well remember the Sister Kenny treatments (hot wool wraps on my affected legs) and the physical therapy that my mother did with me. Oshinsky was taken the story and made a drama of the race to create a vaccine. The Salk/Sabin race, the origins and strategies of the March of Dimes (which paid for all my treatment), and the controversy ...more
Mar 02, 2010 Anne rated it really liked it
Though this was a broad-ranging and fascinating book, I highlighted only 1 sentence in it: "Today the word 'polio' describes a vaccine to be taken, not a disease to be feared." Wow! What an inspiration to anyone who works in medical research, particularly in vaccine research. The 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winner for history, this book examines themes that are far from merely historical but are the same challenges that occupy us today: competing research priorities and development programs, internation ...more
Jul 24, 2007 Gretchen rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: people in the medical field
This book is a readable story of the research that led to the development of the polio vaccine. The author starts out with a very approachable and interesting story that ends up
(two thirds of the way) muddled in too many details and going in too many tangents of names and places that were just not necessary to tell the story. As a member of the medical community I felt obligated to read it. Read it if you feel inclined and have the extra time, you will learn a bit about polio and the vaccine's
Katherine Wertheim
Jun 01, 2014 Katherine Wertheim rated it really liked it
This is a very vivid telling of the story of polio in America and how polio was cured. As we're getting close to a world-wide ending of polio, I thought I would review it.

There are a number of stories in this book that really stick out for me. One is that polio was more likely to strike middle and upper class people. The reason is that a mild form of polio occurs in dirt, and poor people were exposed to it early in their lives and built up immunity to it. Wealthier people, like Franklin D. Roose
Mar 26, 2013 Eliza rated it it was amazing

Excellent account of the history of the campaign against polio in the US. Perhaps my experience as a polio survivor influences my reaction to the book. However, this is the first book that has made me want to know more about this terrible disease. I would have liked to have read even more about the social history of reactions to polio. I think a lot of reviewers are too young to understand how the threat of polio really paralyzed our society and distorted childhood experiences for many.
Dec 13, 2014 Marcus rated it it was amazing
Despite my maternal grandmother’s childhood struggle with polio and my own participation in the iconic March of Dimes campaign in elementary school, I was entirely ignorant of what has been called the “20th century’s most feared disease” until recently reading David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story. This 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History was recommended to me by a good college friend who is pursuing his MD/PhD at UCLA and is writing his dissertation on the singular place Poliomyeli ...more
Jul 31, 2014 Wilma rated it it was amazing
I read this book several years ago and loved it. Just finished rereading it because I am planning to use it as text in lifelong learning class. Still love it.

This book is an excellent general review of the history of polio in America. Oshinsky pays particular attention to the role of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (and its fundraising arm, the March of Dimes). While he briefly describes epidemics and includes some stories of polio survivors, the focus of much of the book is the
Apr 06, 2015 Prakriti rated it really liked it
I came across this book while looking for other Pulitzer prize winners related to the field of medical science, after having read 'The Emperor of all Maladies'. The author has spun a complete American story about not just Polio, but also what were possibly the foundations of modern-day philanthropy, the increasing role of Federal Government in medical research, and the huge public enthusiasm and mobilization in eradicating a 'public health issue' spanning the entire 20th century! He has captured ...more
Jim Leckband
Dec 03, 2015 Jim Leckband rated it really liked it
You would think an anti-vaxxer (sp?) would hate this book as it would challenge their beliefs. But as I think about it more, there is a lot in here that would bolster their short-sighted and selfish fallacies. Making vaccines is messy and mistakes can be made - especially when done for profit as the Cutter fiasco reminds us.

The story of the defeat of diseases by vaccines is a tale that is not told as often or as loudly as it should be. Millions of people are alive today because of this, families
Feb 03, 2016 Monical rated it liked it
Although the jacket proudly trumpets "winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History" I got stuck in the middle of this book for a while. The middle section discussions of the origins of the March of Dimes was repetitive and I found them uninteresting, and some of the introductory scientific parts were presented out of order (without logic or data to support how the conclusions were reached; also contradicting the next sections on early studies). However, as I got further into the book, those "bor ...more
Karen Bayley-ewell
Aug 26, 2015 Karen Bayley-ewell rated it really liked it
Another must read for anyone entering the biological sciences..! A great medical history book that really gives an insight into the human fight against the Poliovirus that left children permanently disabled, and sometimes in an iron-lung. This book brings home the torment suffered by children and parents alike during the desperate search for a prevention throughout the decades of the last century.
Aug 26, 2014 Karen rated it it was amazing
I had a bit of a personal reason for reading this book. Not just that I teach microbiology, and about these diseases to my students. My parents told me that when I was little, and they figured out that I was Deaf (from rubella) that they had tried to go to the March of Dimes for help. They were young parents and knew nothing about disabilities and were trying to get some guidance on what to do with their disabled daughter. The March of Dimes didn't give them any help at all of course (in the lat ...more
Dec 17, 2015 Matt rated it it was ok
Shelves: science
Interesting book about the race for the polio vaccine and it's impact on American society. Definitely full of little factoids, but the narrative doesn't really get rolling until you're over halfway done. If you're interested in disease, polio, vaccines, or life in America in the 1950s, it's worth a read.

* - Reserved for nonfiction. Worth a read if you're interested in the subject. Check out from library.

** - Good. May be inconsistent and flawed, but overall worth a read if you're in the mood for
Nov 07, 2014 Carla rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Oshinsky does an excellent job of recreating some of the excitement and discovery inherent in the development of the vaccines for polio in the 1950s. Using vast amounts of primary source material, he recreates the personalities of the key players in the fight against polio, primary among them Jonas Salk and his rival Albert Sabin as well as Basil O'Connor of what becomes the March of Dimes. I would have liked some more information on the polio virus itself; I was left wondering, for example, if ...more
Apr 20, 2014 Snidely rated it it was amazing
As a baby boomer, "polio" and "new vaccine" and "March of Dimes" were familiar terms that I didn't always fully understand. I was too young at the time to know any details about what was going on concerning the years of the polio scares and efforts to combat the disease.

This book sheds light on the whole thing. The "American Story" is indeed a story, replete with good guys, bad guys, and some guys who were sometimes of one persuasion and sometimes of another. Also like other good stories there
Peter Faur
Jun 24, 2014 Peter Faur rated it really liked it
Great recounting of the rivalry between Salk and Sabin and the creation of modern, disease-based public relations initiatives.

The book shows how the March of Dimes used many of the modern tools of public relations and publicity to drive effective fund-raising to finance research into polio.

Jonas Salk, we learn, was treated as an outsider by the research establishment, but his persistence pushed him to the forefront of polio research and made him an international hero.

A great look at the ins-an
Rachel Jones
Feb 23, 2014 Rachel Jones rated it it was amazing
Outstanding. Finally, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner I can get behind.
Nov 01, 2015 Irina rated it it was amazing
Interesting and well-written narrative covering the events leading up to two competing polio vaccines in US. This is a necessary read at a time when so many people take for vaccines for granted or worse believe they are in place to harm us rather than protect. When most doctors have never seen a real case of polio or measles we often forget just how tenuous our defenses are against these terrible diseases. One shot often separates us from having a very different life or having to fight (or see o ...more
Oct 27, 2015 Heather rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club
SWE Book Club Nov 2015

I was motivated to select this book for our book club after hearing an interview with the author. Our mom contracted polio in October 1956 (her treatment was fully funded by March of Dimes), and this was the first time I have ever read anything in detail about the history of polio. It was fascinating to read about how it went from a sickness that no one understood anything about to developing a robust vaccine so that most of the world is now immune from it (at least the cou
Aug 15, 2015 Deanna rated it liked it
I'm not sure why I found this fairly boring. Maybe it was the reader (I was listening to it in audiobook form), but I don't think so. The author wraps the political and social system of the early 20th century around the hunt for a vaccine for this deadly disease. Many thousands of people were killed or paralyzed, including our president, before the vaccine was developed. But in the middle of the book, it degenerates into a fight between competing arrogant doctors and laboratories about who was t ...more
Dec 05, 2014 Anna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow, what a book to tackle! Well written, and I really enjoyed the narrative of the different pieces of the story. Oshinsky did a great job of organizing the different timelines and perspectives that made it quite easy to follow (especially compared to recent non-fiction I've attempted to read on the kindle that's all over the place).

Working at NIH, it was great to get a layman's perspective of vaccine development, since many of the scientists I work with have personal experience in this proces
Bob Schmitz
Jan 23, 2015 Bob Schmitz rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A fascinating book about the history of polio in the United States and the development of vaccines eradicated it. The rise of polio in the United States seems to come about with the increase cleanliness of America in the early part of the 20th century. Before 1900 few Americans bathed more than once a week or washed their hair more than once a month and few washed their hands before eating after using the toilet.

With the discovery of microbes in the 1870s and the development of the germ theory
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NonFiction Pulitzers: Polio: An American Story: March/April 2016 5 5 Jan 28, 2016 09:25AM  
Did anyone else read this because of Freakonomics? 9 15 Aug 14, 2013 10:47AM  
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