Polio: An American Story
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Polio: An American Story

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  1,560 ratings  ·  187 reviews
Polio: An American Story is a book by David M. Oshinsky, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, which documents the polio epidemic in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s and the race to find a cure.
Paperback, 368 pages
Published September 1st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2005)
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Clif
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...more
Jetta
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
Ashley
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...more
Hillary
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...more
Trena
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...more
Gab
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...more
Ana Rusness-petersen
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...more
Tim
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
Anne
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
Eliza


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.
Rachel Jones
Outstanding. Finally, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner I can get behind.
Cindy Dyson Eitelman
My verdict: it's strong in the beginning, okay at the end, weak in the middle. In the beginning there was the disease and the crusade--Franklin Roosevelt, Hollywood studios, the March of Dimes, the Mothers' March--all joined to raise the money to develop a vaccine and test it. The tests of the killed-virus vaccine, Salk's, were called the "biggest public health experiment ever." The sheer amount of paperwork involved in tracking the results seem darn near impossible to me now. Remember: 1955 = n...more
Bob Schmitz
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...more
Cq
I loved the historical perspective provided -- the competition between Salk and Sabin, how polio wasn't the "epidemic" it was made out to be, how FDR and the entire fundraising campaign (and the modern March of Dimes came to be, (which I remember as a kid through pushing dimes into a little cardboard collection folder). I also appreciated the information about how they discovered the virus and all the effort that went into that discovery.

As a child who received the sugar-cube vaccine after stan...more
Greg
The book reviews outbreaks of polio throughout the 20th century. The role polio played in FDR's life and how his birthday celebration eventually led to the March of Dimes and the 1946 dime with his picture. The Mothers March of Dimes started in Arizona and spread to the whole country as a way to raise money. I am currently reading about Jonas Salk and Sabine and other researchers who eventually developed the vaccines that wiped out the disease.

I finished the book late last night. It's fascinatin...more
Linda
I've always been fascinated by polio since being a child and lining up for the sugar cube on what I now know are called "Sabin Sundays". And I read about fears that prevented summer gatherings and kept kids out of cities. I saw people that survived the disease wearing braces and saw pictures of iron lungs.

So I knew they eliminated polio by finding a vacine, but what caused it? How was it spread? What was the key to making this amazing progress?

It was hard to find a book that answered my question...more
David
I have a masochistic streak which drives me to read the opinions of pundits. As a result, I am subjected to a lot of gaseous carping by soreheads about how bad everything has come to be. Yearning for the good old days yourself? Consider this scenario:

Day 1: Everything fine -- a beautiful summer day.
Day 2: After a day of exercise, you have a stiff neck and are very tired.
Day 3: You have polio -- you're in agony.
Day 4 until the end of your life: You are a helpless cripple in an iron lung, bankrupt...more
Jessica
Who knew that a book about Polio could be so fascinating? It turns out the hunt for the cure for polio totally changed the landscape for disease charities and the way in which foundations sought out the public's money. For the first time a private foundation, funded by the public's money, was almost completely responsible for producing a working polio vaccine (obviously it's more complicated than that, but it was still quite and accomplishment). This book follows polio from it's first major outb...more
Brian
The quest to find the cure for Polio is one of the most interesting medical stories in history. How did a disease that was not a major threat compared to Influenza, cancer or heart disease capture the nations attention and spend millions if not billions in a search for a cure. The answer is miraculously in the private sector where the national foundation harnessed the resources of a nation to bring together top scientific talent. The real story lies behind two scientists, Salk and Sabin, who wou...more
Diane
Mar 26, 2013 Diane rated it 4 of 5 stars Recommends it for: history and science buffs
Recommended to Diane by: son
This is another of those books lent to me by son who read it for his university history class. The book won the Pulitzer in history in 2006. I can see why. It not only explained the disease and the efforts of scientists, fundraisers, and governments to eradicate the disease, but it was a social history of how it effected the American (mostly) people during the mid 20th century. Since my mom was hospitalized with polio when I was 3, I consequently heard about it most of my growing up years. It wa...more
Bryce
A comprehensive and elegantly told history of polio and its vaccine in the United States.

While this is an excellent history book, it's not necessarily filled with the history that I'm interested in. Oshinsky focused on the National Foundation, Sabin and Salk and the spread of the vaccine around the US and the world. What it turns out I'd rather read about: The actual mechanics of Polio, the small-stories of people stricken with the disease and FDR's politics. There's no problem with this book;...more
Aimeslee
I saw this book in the ER Hamilton circular and bought it because it cost only $5 for the hardback and it had some vintage photos in it I could use in my collage art. Then, I said, I'll read a little of it before tearing it up...

Oh boy, am I ever glad I began reading it, because I didn't stop until I finished! I was amazed at how much additional history trivia was in it, and how much like a detective novel it read. The topic was polio and the race to find the cure, as the title suggests. But it...more
Leslie
David Oshinsky framed this book on the development of the IPV and OPV in creative ways--as the emergence of a new kind of philanthropy in the U.S., and as an intensely personal drama within the young community of virologists about the nature of their science and the relationship of science to public interests.

On the one front, he describes the merging of expertise in politics and advertising in the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The force of FDR's personality a...more
Alger
Workman-like and competent, this book is Pulitzer Prize material more because of the weakness of field that year (the other 2006 nominees were New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan & The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln) than the impressiveness of this very uneven volume.

Oshinsky's primary interest, and his real talent as an author lies in describing the personalities that pushed the search for a cure forward and their relationship...more
Converse

This book mainly recounts how th National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis supported Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in developing vaccines for this disease. Polio is a somewhat unusual infectious disease, in that before the vaccines became available, the most appalling potential effects of the virus (such as paralysis and death) would often be more apparent among the better scrubbed children of the midddle and upper classes than among their poorer contemporaries. Sabin hypothesized that perhaps

...more
Cecily
So part of the problem with this book comes from me- my mother had polio when she was 4 and never talked much about it. This book gave some insights into the experience of polio in children in the 40's. There was a lot more blah blah blah about the politics of vaccine research and that was not as interesting to me. I enjoyed the in-depth look at how polio transformed FDR.

The story my mom's older sister told is still the most haunting. My poor little mom was in the hospital isolation ward, separ...more
Gary Greenberg
What a surprisingly broad history of this American challenge! It covered the history of publicly funded research, the origin of mega-charities, the growth of the civil-rights activism of handicapped Americans, the acceleration of commercial interests in science, the development of research ethics in community cohorts.

From a social science perspective, the birth and dominance of the March of Dimes was narrated in detail and with an open mind as to the positive and negative effects on American soc...more
Carrie "Slugger"
Going into this book, I knew very little about the efforts to eliminate polio in the United States. I'd heard of Jonas Salk but knew nothing about his background or the contribution of other scientists to polio research. This book is an excellent, in-depth look at how polio became the most feared disease in the U.S. (ahead of other, more common and fatal diseases). It details FDR's own struggle with polio, the creation of the March of Dimes, and the race for a vaccine.

I do not have any medical...more
Jeff
My children will probably never know polio. My own life was different from my parents as I never had to fear polio like they did. And we all have Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to thank for that. This book covers their story of the development of the polio vaccine that freed much of the world from the fear of polio. But more than that, the book describes the personal battles tht raged on the highest level of science and medicine over the work. Egos and hubris do exist among scientists and this...more
rmn
A perfectly ok book that details the history and search for a polio cure in the United States. The author includes sections on FDR, the emergence of the March of Dimes, and the researchers who tried to find a cure (mainly Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and Albert Sabin's ego).

Polio was sort of the AIDS of its day only it wasn't clear how people contracted it (and becoming more sanitized was actually not beneficial) and it mostly struck children, so um, maybe not the best analogy but like AIDS it was...more
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