The Magazine

Paralyzing Fear

How the "conquest of polio" became a national crusade.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By CHRISTINE ROSEN
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An American Story

by David M. Oshinsky

Oxford, 342 pp., $30

SINCE IT HAS ONLY BEEN a little over 50 years since Americans experienced the scourge of polio, it is a little alarming that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History decided to call a recent exhibit, "Whatever Happened to Polio?" If contemporary Americans think about polio at all, evidently, they have only vague ideas about this bygone affliction. They might remember polio's most remarkable celebrity sufferer, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or its unlikely conqueror, the scientist Jonas Salk. But they recall little else, despite the fact that there are, by some estimates, 400,000 polio survivors still living in the United States.

But as David M. Oshinsky's excellent new book reminds us, in the 1950s, the enemy within that concerned Americans wasn't only communism; it was polio. Here was a disease that targeted children and that frustrated the physicians and public health officials who sought to prevent it. They knew that it struck in the balmy months of summer, affected more boys than girls, and respected no geographical or socioeconomic boundaries. It left its victims weakened or permanently paralyzed, and often killed the most vulnerable. But the etiology of the virus was little understood. Oshinsky, a historian at the University of Texas and the author of previous books about McCarthyism and justice in the Jim Crow South, skillfully weaves archival resources and medical description to argue that polio was, in important ways, a uniquely American experience.

"Americans were primed to see polio as an indigenous plague with an indigenous solution," he writes, "a problem to be solved, like so many others, through a combination of ingenuity, voluntarism, determination, and money." As with previous (and future) health crusades, victory was assumed. "One of the most common mantras of the post-World War II era, repeated by fund raisers, politicians, advertisers, and journalists," Oshinsky notes, "was the bold and (ultimately) truthful, promise, 'we will conquer polio.'"

Two stories emerge from Oshinsky's well-drawn narrative, which focuses largely on efforts in the 1940s and '50s to understand the disease and develop a vaccine. The first is the tale of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later called the March of Dimes) and how it permanently transformed crusades for American public health and charitable giving. The second story focuses on the scientific rivalry between the two polio researchers intent on creating an effective polio vaccine: Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk.

Central to the first story were the efforts of polio's most famous victim, FDR, who, in 1921, at the age of 39 and at the cusp of a promising political career, fell ill with polio. Seven years later he won the governorship of New York and had become the public face of polio survivors--although he skillfully downplayed the extent of his physical disabilities. But FDR's "splendid deception," as one historian called it, did not preclude a lifelong desire to improve the lives of other polio sufferers. Roosevelt created the Warm Springs Foundation (run by his law partner Basil O'Connor), which was the forerunner of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

As president, Roosevelt encouraged fundraising for polio research and treatment at nationwide "birthday balls" (complete with songs written specifically for the occasion by Irving Berlin) and worked with O'Connor to turn the foundation into "the largest voluntary health organization of all time," Oshinsky notes. When the vaudeville actor and Ziegfeld Follies alum Eddie Cantor suggested a campaign, called "The March of Dimes," where Americans could send dimes to the president in support of a polio cure, the White House was inundated with dime-laden mail.

As Oshinsky convincingly notes, however, even during the worst decades of its spread, polio was "never the raging epidemic portrayed in the media." Nevertheless, polio generated fear across the country. After all, the notion that misfortune could be prevented with the helpful enlightenment of science and good public policy was an American truism. But preventive measures had failed, and, as a result, "the dilemma facing America's parents," Oshinsky argues, was "a feeling of personal helplessness in the midst of an apparently runaway epidemic, grimly chronicled in local newspapers and national magazines."