Friday, April 27, 2007

Polio: An American Story

Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky
$11.53 at ISBN: 0195307143
Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history, this book recounts the story of the most feared disease of the 20th century and the heroes who mobilized the nation to fight it.
Polio was not just an American disease, but for reasons no one can explain to this day, the US did suffer more casualties than any other nation on earth. Usually striking infants, although adults did contract it as well, it causes agonizing pain followed by paralysis or death. It was difficult to tell how it was transmitted: dozens of children would develop it at once in a small town only to have it vanish as quickly as it had come. It affected industrialized nations more than the poor, underdeveloped areas that usually serve as epicenters of disease. Proper sanitation and use of disinfectants hardly seemed to prevent its spread at all.
The most famous polio victim, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, kept his disability mostly hidden from the public, who were typically terrified and disgusted by the crippled and disfigured. Public perceptions of the physically disabled had begun to change. Older views of the cripple as a hopeless burden on family and society, best hidden in an upstairs bedroom or dreary institution, had given way to more positive notions of recovery, thanks in large part to the positive example of FDR.
There's a lot of heroism in this story: the scientific pioneers struggling to find a cure as they had for smallpox, scarlet fever, and so many other illnesses in the previous century. Thousands of volunteers organized fund-raisers to provide research grants and assistance for families of the victims, including the United Way and March of Dimes. The optimism of children in spite of their suffering remains inspiring and heartwarming.
The iron lung was invented to help those experiencing paralysis of the lungs due to polio, but who were expected to recover and breathe again on their own. It was meant to bring people back to health, not to keep hopelessly damaged people alive. No one had seriously pondered the long-term implications of this life saving technology.
This is a top quality book, especially impressive since it involves so much science, typically a difficult subject to make interesting to those who aren't scientists. Oshinsky pulls it off with humor and aplomb, his story is exciting but never depressing, fascinating and educational but never dry or dull. Here's history and medicine that can be enjoyed simply as good storytelling.

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