The Silent Enemy

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.

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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.

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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.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: That land of desolation

Martial optimism mixes with frustration as Stone sits down to sew, only because her seamstress slave has escaped.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Martial optimism mixes with frustration as Stone sits down to sew, only because her seamstress slave has escaped.

May 29, 1864

Tyler, Texas

The news this morning is enough to make one hurrah. Grant is repulsed with a loss of 45,000 and Johnston is victorious at Dalton with 10,000 prisoners captured. Providence is smiling on our arms this year. Not a defeat. Peace, glorious Peace, will gladden our hearts before the spring flowers bloom again.

It is the fairest of May days and Mamma has gone to church. I stayed with Johnny, who is feeling unwell and is in bed. Mamma will find it unpleasantly warm walking that mile from church. Oh, for a carriage! My ambition reaches out only for a carriage and a riding horse for Johnny, then I shall be satisfied for a little while. I doubt that I was ever intended for a poor girl. Deprivations go hard with me. Mamma has more strength of mind than to worry about it.

A wagon just arrived from the prairie loaded with eatables. … Not a cent of money in the house for a week and only hard fare. As the wagon has come, Jimmy’s trip was useless. All the Negroes are well and affairs are flourishing in that land of desolation. The last few days have been as dismal as a rainy Sunday. We miss Julia. No letters, no visitors, and even the boys have half-way deserted us. … Mrs. Savage grows ruder every day. She is so often rough and unkind in her speech that the boys all stand in terror of her tongue and will hardly venture to go there.

May 30

Our first busy day this spring, sewing on the cloth from the prairie. We are at last using homespun. Hemmed a dozen towels today, looking much like the dish towels of old. Little Sister is to have an outfit from the same piece, but she quite glories in the idea of wearing homespun and coming out a regular Texan. The house servants are charmed to see the cloth. They have been fit suspects for the ragman for weeks. Mamma is readying up Charles, who has been a regular ragamuffin.

We are sorry Adeline, the seamstress, selected this as a fit time to run away. It keeps our hands full. Mamma sent Felix back to Mr. Smith and has Thomas in his place. We think he will be an improvement. …

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Nobly and fearlessly

In one of her longest and most beautiful passages, a heartbroken Kate Stone mourned the loss of yet another beloved brother.

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone recalled with heartbreaking beauty the loss of yet another beloved brother.

Note how Bonham stressed Coleman’s dignity and comfort throughout his physical deterioration, his medical care, and his serene death and moonlit funeral. Her letter turned his decline into a graceful ceremonial journey from life to death. Bonham tried to reassure Coleman’s mother that all Christian values were fulfilled (the Bible under the pillow, the constant prayers read, his hopes for divine forgiveness). It promised that Coleman’s masculinity was preserved right to the end (adoring women always nearby to care for him and kiss him, his brave endurance of terrible pain, his resolve bringing grown men to tears). It illustrated his final moments as unforgettable and fitting for a Southern gentleman (no undignified or embarrassing “contortion,” the retention of “his senses,” his grim but religiously devoted bearing).

Dec. 10, 1863

Again we are called on to mourn one of our dearest and best. Brother Coley has crossed the Dark Valley, free from all pain and trouble. He lies at rest and we are desolate indeed. We had heard only the week before that he was well on October 10, when the letter came telling of his death at Clinton, Miss., on September 22. I can do no better than copy Mrs. Bonham’s letter to Mamma, telling how nobly and fearlessly a Christian soldier can die.

Clinton, Miss.

Sept. 25, 1863

My dear Friend:

It is with feelings of deep and heartfelt sorrow that I resume my pen to give you the particulars of the death of your noble son Coleman Stone. He breathed his last at a quarter before ten Tuesday morning, Sept. 22nd. I wrote you a week before his death giving you full particulars up to that time. Then fever set in which with his previous bad health and reduced state and wound combined soon brought him down. The injury, as I stated in my letter, was very serious from the first and never healed as it would have done on a strong, healthy person. Ten days or more before his death I had him moved from the hospital to an office in the yard next me so I could give him constant care. Mrs. Moore was on the other side so some female was with him all the time. I never saw so great a favorite. Everybody in town was interested in him. Someone was constantly calling to see if they could be of service. As for me, I loved him as a son and grieved for him as one. He was one of the most patient beings under suffering I ever saw.

I watched him three weeks and four days. Most of the time he was suffering the most excruciating pain, but he bore it with the most remarkable firmness, and to you, his mother, I bear the comforting assurance that he died a Christian. The first Sabbath after he came to the hospital I went in the evening to see him, fearing he would be lonely, and found him reading his Testament. I sat down by him and read aloud for some time. He kept his Bible lying always under his pillow. I used often to take my work and sit by him, and we had many conversations about you, his brothers, and sisters, and his last wish was that he could see you all once more, calling you all by name.

Two days before his death he told me he wished the doctor to tell him his exact condition. He was perfectly calm and composed. The doctor told him there was no chance of his recovery, and said to him, “Coley, you are a sensible thinking boy and must know the necessity of preparation for another world.” He replied that he did and asked me to send for a minister to converse and pray with him. I at once sent for Mr. Tom Markham, formerly of Vicksburg, who happened to be in this vicinity, and around the couch of that dying soldier boy I passed through some of the most impressive scenes of my life.

At sunrise on Tuesday morning, we all knelt around his bed and heard one of the most feeling and beautiful prayers I ever listened to. When I rose and stood by him my hand on his head, he looked in my face and said, “Mrs. Bonham, I don’t think I have ever been a very wicked boy, but since I have been in the army I have been striving to be a Christian, and I believe God has heard my prayers and has answered them. I believe He has forgiven my many sins, pardoned me, and will take me to my home in Heaven. Write to my dear Mother and tell her what I have said to you. I have longed, oh, so much, to see her and my Brothers and Sisters once more, but as I cannot on this earth I trust they will meet me in Heaven.”

He was perfectly calm and had his senses up to five minutes before his death. There was no struggle, no contortion. I stood on one side of him, Mrs. Moore on the other, Dr. Hunt, Mr. Markham, and several others around. I stooped and with sobs and tears pressed a kiss on his brow. He looked in my eyes and said audibly so that all could hear, “For my Mother.” Again I kissed him, and he said, “For my Sisters.” All were in tears.

The strong, stout man who waited on him turned to the window sobbing aloud. Of that good man, that kindhearted friend, I must speak. Mr. Galloway was sent at Coley’s request to wait on him. He watched by him day and night with the faithfulness and affection of a brother and the tenderness of a woman. He was never for a moment cross or impatient and always ready to gratify Coley’s slightest wish, and he grieved for him as for a brother. I shall always love the man for his devotion to Coley, who, on his death bed, told me he wanted Mr. Galloway to have his horse and other effects. He said his horse belonged to his brother, and Mr. Galloway would give it up if it was ever called for. He also has his pistol. …

I have his Testament and a few books. My Belle never let a morning pass without taking him a bouquet of flowers, which he always enjoyed.

Joe Carson came in the morning of his death. He grieved sorely to think he must give up forever his dearest friend. It made my heart ache to see his sorrow. … We dressed Coley in a nice suit of clothes furnished by a young friend of his, Tom Moore. When Coley was first brought in, Tom said to his mother, “Do all you can for Coley Stone as he is my best friend.” Everything of the best kind was prepared for his burial. I wish it was in my power to describe the funeral, but my pen is inadequate. It took place just after night. The moon was full and shone most beautifully. The burial service by Mr. Markham was long and most appropriate. Nearly all of his company were present and a large number of ladies. A stranger would have thought from the feeling shown that we were each seeing a loved brother or son to his last resting place. All were in tears. That burial was one we will all remember. You have my deepest sympathy in this, your great sorrow.

How many sad hearts and broken households has this terrible war caused.

Most sincerely your friend,
Mary T. Bonham

My heart bleeds for Mamma. Sorrow after sorrow rolls over her, almost more than she can bear, but she is a most brave woman and will not sink beneath the burden.

The moonlight falls clear and cold on the graves of three of those who made the mirth and happiness of our home only two short summers ago, three of the glad young voices are hushed, three of the bright young heads lie low. Now what remains of the high hopes, the stirring plans, and the great ambitions that burned in the hearts and filled the brain of these gallant boys — only a handful of dust. All have fallen in the dew and flower of their youth. Ashburn was the first to sink to his dreamless sleep. For two long years the grass has been springing fresh and green over his grave at Brokenburn. He died Nov. 12, 1861, aged eighteen years and three months. Brother Walter was the next to obey the dread summons. He crossed the black waters of the River of Death Feb. 15, 1863, aged eighteen years and two months, and now in the autumn of the same year Brother Coley has passed from Time to Eternity, his short life numbering twenty years and six months.

What charms can peace have for us when it does come bereft of our nearest and dearest?

They grew in beauty side by side
They filled one home with glee,
Their graves are scattered far and wide
By mountain, grove, and sea.

We can never return to the bright and happy home of three years ago. These three graves darken the threshold.

Mamma was in Shreveport when we received the letter and did not get home for several days. She had heard all were well and came home cheerful and happy to be greeted by such news. It was an awful shock to her.

Brother Coley had such a brave and dauntless spirit in that frail, sensitive body, a love for all that was pure and noble, and a scathing contempt for all that was low and mean. Joe Carson has just left after a short furlough home, and from him we learned all that we can know of Brother Coley. He had not grown to strong manhood, as we fondly imagined, but was still a beardless boy, tall and slender, the same fragile form and unbending energy and spirit that we knew at home. He had been offered a position as 2nd lieutenant in Bragg’s army through Uncle Bo’s influence. He had accepted it and expected to join his new company in a few days, when he received the injury that caused his death.

He was out scouting near Clinton with several others when something scared his horse, a powerful black of Dr. Buckner’s. Brother Coley was sitting sideways on the horse, his leg thrown over the pommel. They had stopped to rest when the horse reared and Brother Coley’s spur caught in the bit as he threw his leg over, and the horse fell backward crushing Brother Coley’s shoulder and arm against a root — a most painful injury. He was a splendid rider, and to meet death that way. He had been in many skirmishes and engagements but never was wounded. In the desperate charge that the 28th Mississippi, made in the Franklin, Tenn., battle, he had his cartridge box shot off and fell from his horse but was unhurt. Once acting as regimental orderly he rode through a fire of shot and shell that none of the couriers would brave to carry orders to his squadron.

Brother Walter was only once under fire but acted with such coolness and courage that he was highly complimented by his officers. A small party were sleeping at a picket post on the bank of a little stream when they were surprised by the enemy, who opened artillery fire across the creek. The men rushed for their horses and galloped off, but Brother Walter after mounting rode to the banks of the stream and fired several shots at the gunners, saying afterwards, “Boys, I was just obliged to take a few shots at them.”

Well may we be proud of our brave boys, and we can never be grateful enough to the kind friends at Clinton who nursed Brother Coley so tenderly.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Southern hearts

Stone mourned the loss of Stonewall Jackson at the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, calling him a “peerless general and Christian soldier.”

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From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone mourned the loss of Stonewall Jackson at the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, calling him a “peerless general and Christian soldier.”

May 23, 1863

Near Monroe, La.

Aunt Laura was quite ill while Mamma was away, and I felt the responsibility of taking care of her. She is now much better. Mamma had two fevers, and we were very afraid it would go into a long low fever. She is quite prone to have that in the spring, but fortunately she has escaped a return of it. Sarah, Mary Wadley, and I went last afternoon to call on the Misses Compton and Stacey. We went in Mamma’s famous Jersey wagon, and it is a ramshackled affair with the seats and most of the bottom dropped down. We had a merry ride and concluded that a frame, a tongue, two mules, and a driver were the only essentials in a vehicle. … Walking through the pine woods, we saw wild flowers in such profusion. The air is so fragrant that it is a pleasure to breathe it. …

The news from Mississippi is bad. Gen. Grant with an army of 120,000 men is in the rear of Vicksburg. He has possession of Jackson, and much of the city has been burned. There has been a battle near Raymond in which we were said to have been routed because of Gen. [John C.] Pemberton’s disregard of orders. We drove them out of Jackson once, but we cannot hear whether they retook it after a battle or whether our forces withdrew. We will not be discouraged. …

In the death of Stonewall Jackson [at the Battle of Chancellorsville] we have lost more than many battles. We have lost the conqueror on a dozen fields, the greatest general on our side. His star has set in the meridian of its glory, and he is lost to his country at the time when she needs him most. As long as there is a Southern heart, it should thrill at the name of Stonewall Jackson, our peerless general and Christian soldier. His death has struck home to every heart. …

May 24

Mamma and I went over yesterday after tea to see Capt. and Mrs. Harper. They are also on their way to Texas. Capt. Harper was one of the party at home on Christmas Eve, and my last ride on Wonka was to invite the gentlemen in camp over to Brokenburn.

We were glad to meet his little daughter Sophie Harper, Mr. Valentine’s grandchild. Both of the Mr. Valentines talked so much about her. She is a bright, attractive child and bears a striking resemblance to her Uncle Mark in features, gesture, and expression. They say old Mr. Valentine is so overwrought by his losses … that it is feared he will lose his mind. He escaped from his place a few days after we left entirely alone in a boat with only a few clothes. The Negroes came and stripped the place of everything while he was on it and were exceedingly insolent to him, threatening all the time to kill him. He is quite an elderly man and cannot stand hardships like younger people. …

May 26

Mamma is staying tonight with Mrs. Young whose little girl Alice is sick unto death. Johnny, who by the way could not overtake Mr. Smith, and Mamma went into Monroe this morning trying to buy a wagon and carriage but failed to get either. So we must … wait here until we can get conveyances, and we could not ask for a more delightful stopping place or kinder hosts. Such a haven of rest after the trouble and anxiety of the last three months. We have put away troubles and distress for a time as a wayworn traveler lays down his burden when he stops to rest, enjoying the coolness and verdure, though he knows the burden must be lifted and he must journey on through toil and pain to the end.

How I dread being secluded on some remote farm in Texas, far away from all we know and love and unable to get news of any kind. It is a terrifying prospect.

I am busy sewing most of the time. We will soon be through all our clothes — just a white barege dress of Carrie’s to alter for myself and Mamma intends making a black velvet hat for me. Then, all our pressing needs will be gratified. …