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The Silent Enemy

December 1, 2014

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The United States battled polio long before it ever faced the Soviet hegemonic threat, but only during the Cold War did the U.S. achieve significant victories in the battle against the virus.

A review by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

******

Discussed in this essay:

Polio: An American Story. By David M. Oshinsky. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 342. $20.45

The United States battled polio long before it ever faced the Soviet hegemonic threat, but only during the Cold War did the U.S. achieve significant victories in the battle against the virus. The struggle, as David M. Oshinsky beautifully explains in Polio: An American Story, contributed to middle-class insecurities over real and perceived communist, nuclear, and social threats throughout the era, and it made superstars out of squabbling scientists determined to find a safe vaccine. But the story he tells also serves as a prism through which to view other aspects of U.S. history: the old racial and ethnic fault lines scarring twentieth-century America, the evolution of nationwide fundraising efforts, the heartstring-tugging advertisements needed to inspire donations, and the political maneuvering vital to ensure any historic scientific victory would be seen as a victory only a Western democratic and capitalism system was capable of bestowing to a war-torn world. Oshinsky’s book intertwines each thread to create a vibrant tapestry of tragedy and triumph, groundbreaking science and fleeting fame, and flawed and brittle greatness.1

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jonas Salk are the two great mountains dominating the landscape Oshinsky paints for his readers. His narrative talents beautifully trace efforts predating the Cold War that marshaled the American people on a national scale to fight an illness from which no one, not even New York patricians, were safe. Roosevelt’s struggle and determination energized at-first modest efforts to help polio victims, like the Warm Springs rehabilitation center. He then inspired national efforts, like the multi-city celebration of his birthday to raise funds for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, one dime at a time, and like mothers marching through neighborhoods to collect donations. The March of Dimes demonstrated how to creatively organize a public grassroots fundraising movement. Advertisers conceived the poster child to promise what a thousand words could not. The “concept of philanthropy as consumerism” offered hope to Americans “investing” in their nation’s scientific talent, its ingenuity, and its predestined victory. They were funding their own protection.2

Politicians like Roosevelt pointed to the problem. Scientists like Jonas Salk worked on the solution. Oshinsky’s antiheroes are Salk, who focused on a killed-virus vaccine, and his arch-rival Albert Sabin, who worked on a live-virus vaccine. Oshinsky first celebrates their intellectual achievements and then darkens his portraits with their less-than-admirable qualities, like pettiness, selfishness, jealousy, and hypocrisy. Salk and Sabin are both diminished but also become fuller characters, and Oshinsky’s masterful management of this character development is one of the book’s great strengths. People build their lives with mistakes, aspirations, romantic decisions, and insecurities. Oshinsky argues that history is the result of that grinding process. By humanizing Salk, Sabin, and Roosevelt, the three most recognizable figures in the polio history, he makes their scientific and political achievements all the more extraordinary.

Salk’s emergence as the public face of the scientific effort to conquer polio, beginning with his face on the cover of Time magazine and interviews with leading journalist Edward R. Murrow, embodied the Cold War trend of Americans primed to accept expert advice and direction, and certainly expertise was desperately needed during such a health crisis. But Salk, Oshinsky explains, was more than an expert. He appeared to the public as the vanguard of America’s progress. He wasn’t the faceless, all-knowing narrator of films explaining how to get a date or how to endure a nuclear shockwave. Salk was seen, interviewed, trusted, and believed. He was a husband and a father willing to demonstrate his killed-virus vaccines on his own sons before he tried it on anyone else’s. He characterized the polio vaccine as “the people’s vaccine.”3

The massive 1954 vaccination trials signaled that the war on polio was progressing and demonstrated again how polio could marshal Americans on a national scale. Oshinsky notes that the trials shared front-page coverage with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the Army-McCarthy hearings, and the Brown v. Board of Education court decision – each a key piece of the Cold War struggle with communism at home and abroad, each echoing the vague promises of American democracy. When the Francis Report declared that the Salk vaccine worked, “April 12 resembled another V-J Day.” Sadly, the 1955 Cutter incident shattered the euphoria over and public trust in the vaccine. Critics of the National Foundation’s private efforts to develop and distribute Salk’s vaccine felt vindicated, and they warned of the emergence of socialized medicine. But the Cutter incident’s consequences also included improved polio production, highlighted the effectiveness of the forerunner of today’s Centers for Disease Control, and moved more control over and responsibility for public health into federal hands.4

Oshinsky argues that Salk and Albert Sabin both had Cold War-era political value. Their vaccines symbolized American ingenuity and optimism. The Eisenhower administration sensed Salk’s political value to Republicans angling to not only appear Rooseveltian in their support of the polio war but also to diminish Democratic association with the polio war’s victories. The Sabin vaccine, first administered to millions of Soviet children in 1959, had value to both the U.S. and the Soviets. Sabin found himself angling to ensure news of the successful vaccination program — which he feared could be seen as “typical Soviet propaganda” — was shared with the world. As Soviets asserted that their approach nearly wiped out polio, Americans worried about not just a missile gap, but also a vaccine gap. Americans wanted their Sabin vaccine too.5

Oshinsky subtly weaves ethnicity, class, and race into his polio story. Before the vaccine’s development, Americans blamed immigrants for bringing disease to America (Irish and cholera, Jews and TB) and viewed lower-class slums as cesspools of infection. And yet the poor and rich were struck equally. The wealthy blamed their immigrant servants for bringing infection into their sanitized homes. Polio defied the assumption that disease was found only in the slums. It also shattered the hope that leaving the slum life behind – ascending the class ladder — also meant leaving any risk of crippling disease behind. Scientists thought black Americans were less susceptible to polio, so they received less attention during outbreaks. During the 1954 trials, black Alabama children took their shots outside the white school, where they were banned from the restrooms. And by the mid-1950s, polio, once the scourge of suburban middle class, now ravaged the lower classes who could not afford the three-shot-plus-booster vaccination. Oshinsky also offers a detailed examination of women in this story, particularly killed-virus scientist Isabel Morgan. But there are too few of their stories, which leave the reader yearning for a better gender balance throughout the narrative. Surely, more could have been said about how mothers endured the anguish of crippled or dying children, how wives feared or embraced the sudden publicity burning onto their scientist husbands, or what motivated women to volunteer for fundraisers and vaccination efforts.6

Stylistically, Oshinsky’s decision to explore in narrative form the complex history of the polio struggle is a daring one. He manages a raucous crowd of fascinating and controversial characters with Dickensian elegance, moving them forward in compelling ways through scientific developments that would easily put most readers and historians to sleep, and punctuating his smooth writing style with moments of drama, foreboding, and the ragged endings every life experiences. His devotion to personal details sometimes goes too far, particularly with minor characters, but overall, his focus on the people guiding, experiencing, and enduring the polio struggle humanizes the entire era for readers who may never experience a similar epidemic.

His notes are a mixed bag of secondary and primary sources. Scientific histories and biographies complement letters, diaries, news reports, web links, official reports, and a few interviews, including Salk’s sons, journalist John Troan, and Salk’s embittered underling Julius Youngner. These are the doors Oshinsky leaves open for any curious readers yearning to learn more and for critics who challenge his approach to this history.

Oshinsky’s work is a lavish and intelligent introduction to America’s struggle with the polio virus. Academic readers may sniff over his narrative talents, scoff at his characterizations, and stomp over his less-than-intense analysis of the era’s social and economic themes, but to do so misses the point of his book. Oshinsky’s work is meant to invite readers unfamiliar with the story, to explain the otherwise-intimidating scientific detail, and to celebrate the men and women who achieved great things for mankind. Oshinsky’s overall message to his readers is hopeful and trusting. Americans can make the world a better place. They have done it before, he says, pointing at his book, and they will do it again and again and again.


1. David M. Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2. Oshinsky, Polio, 5, 40-55, 72. Warm Springs, a 2005 HBO movie, illustrated Roosevelt’s struggle with polio, his efforts to establish the Georgia facilities, and his cinematic journey from aristocratic politician to a man of the people ready to assume a role of national leadership.
3. Oshinsky, Polio, 205-211.
4. Oshinsky, Polio, 188-199, 203, 238.
5. Oshinsky, Polio, 215-216, 253, 266.
6. Oshinsky, Polio, 20-23, 65-67, 256.
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