In his introduction, the author summarizes the history of polio’s first appearance as an epidemic in the United States, the ensuing research, subsequent applications of new information, attempts at abatement and ultimate success in the development of preventative measures.

Embedded in the successes and failures of the research applications are the details of human interactions.  Their impact on the goal of achieving near extinction of polio in America constitutes a dramatic subplot, which the historian adroitly weaves into the work.

For the reader who has only a sketchy knowledge of this important period in medical research, this history provides details of human exchanges, conflicts and resolutions necessary to bring the scientific developments to fruition.  Central among the multiple struggles rests the basic disagreement between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, two of the most prominent scientists working against the clock to develop the most effective and safest form of immunization.  Each new surge of the disease added to the urgency of the problem as well as to the question of the best solution.  Salk felt strongly that the immune system should be stimulated by a killed virus preparation, while Sabin was equally convinced that only the living virus could provide this need.  Each view had its own cadre of supporters and of opponents.

Funding issues also troubled those fighting the polio epidemics.  The March of Dimes is credited with raising a record $55 million in the fight against polio in early 1954, becoming the first major infectious disease battle to benefit from a concerted public awareness campaign and demonstrating the power of such volunteer driven efforts to supplement public and other private funding efforts.


The reader of this detailed description of the significance of the epidemics of polio cannot avoid being amazed by the intensity of America’s attempt to bring this menace to bay.  The care with which this volume presents the saga and the persons involved make for a compelling read.  These were real people fighting a battle that swept from certain success to likely failure and back again many times, often almost overnight.  The reader will admire some of them, disapprove of others, but must never forget the common enemy they all faced and fought—each in his or her perceived best way.  The historian brings these people and their struggles to life for the 21st Century reader. 

As we now know, the struggles paid off.  The methods for controlling polio have been consolidated and are now available not only in America, but in most of the world.  Oshinsky’s work contributes invaluable information toward an understanding of an era in medicine, including an appreciation of what could lie ahead as new diseases appear or spread rapidly across continents and oceans.


First issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback, 2006 Pulitzer Prize - History (2006) Herbert Hoover Book Award (2005)


Oxford University Press

Place Published

New York, NY



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