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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, History, 2006

This comprehensive and gripping narrative covers all the challenges, characters, and controversies in America's relentless struggle against polio. Funded by philanthropy and grassroots contributions, Salk's killed-virus vaccine (1954) and Sabin's live-virus vaccine (1961) began to eradicate this dreaded disease.

Author David M. Oshinsky, a multiple New York Times Notable Book winner and University of Texas professor, is a leading American political and cultural historian.

©2005 David M. Oshinsky (P)2007 Recorded Books

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Memorable History

The Pulitzer Prize for history 2006, it is life and times of those involved and their legacy to American culture, science, and medicine, warts and all. The petty behaviors as well as the great accomplishments are given diligent study. I can highly recommend this to any interested in American history of twentieth century. Discussion of the disease itself and the science involved in the development of the vaccines is secondary to the story. If you enjoyed Thomas Hager's Demon Under the Microscope, or John Berry's The Great Influenza, you will like this.

Jonathan Hogan's narration is good but not memorable, of course the book does not lend itself to acting skills.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Patti
  • Chittenango, NY, United States
  • 07-22-08

Wonderful

I remember so many of these events that it almost makes me feel old. Yet as an acknowledgement of this story as history, it does cover one hundred years. So I shouldn't feel too old. :-) My mother campaigned to get a municipal pool built in order to stop the spread of polio. There is a plague commemorating her efforts on that pool today. I work with someone who was diagnosed with Post-polio syndrome.

Enough of my reminiscences... this book is just wonderful. It is anything but a dry history story. Nor is it a dry medical text. But admittingly, it is not a novel either, although it reads much like one in several areas.

Through this book you will learn about this disease, about philanthropic crusades, about research and ethics, and about the people intimatley involved in it all. The truth of this story is all told so well and narrated just as it should be.

I usually listen only in the car. But for this title, I found myself listening every time I was alone in the house as well. And I was just as sad when this book ended as I have been with some of my favorite novels. This is well worth the purchase.

17 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Linda
  • Eagle, ID, United States
  • 09-17-13

Told the American Polio story as never before.

What did you love best about Polio?

As one of the children receiving either the shots in 1954 or 1955 and knowing first-hand the hard decisions my father made each summer as to whether my sister and I would be allowed to swim, I found this book to be one of the best non-fiction offerings I have read in a long time. It is so good and so filled with facts that I am leaving it on my iTouch so as to give it another read next month.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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I was part of this story!

Having been in one of the test groups, it was very interesting to read the back-story.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • S.
  • 10-21-11

Great story -

This is a fascinating story - and while it is a bit long, I was enthralled by the story. The narrator was "C" grade, but the story is compelling and worth every minute.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Ambitious Medical Historical

This ambitious medical historical managed to keep the human element of the story in the forefront. The narrator was scholarly, but never boring. I always appreciate the opportunity to continue learning about medical history, as the retrospective gives me background for making my personal medical choices in todays quickly evolving world of medical choices.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Linda
  • Saratoga Springs, NY, USA
  • 08-21-07

Wonderful health history!

I thoroughly enjoyed this intriguing book! We should never forget the endelible mark that has been left on our past from this disease!

5 of 9 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating Story of What Unity Can Achieve

I selected this book because polio affected my family and I wanted to learn more about the spread of it in 20th century America and the drive to find a vaccine. My grandfather contracted polio as a child, and although fortunate to survive, he was partially crippled throughout his life and used a cane, which I remember bringing home with us as a treasured family heirloom after he passed away. His battle with polio was decades earlier than the concentrated national effort to find a cure in the 1940s and 1950s, but as I read accounts in this book of children twisted, crippled, or paralyzed by this dreaded disease, and parents begging to get their children into the vaccine trials despite the risks, it made me think of what my great-grandparents went through when my grandfather contracted polio. There was no potential vaccine then and polio was misunderstood as to its origin and characteristics. The poor housewives who were told that a spotless home was the only way to protect from polio and the guilt they felt if their children contracted it despite their tireless efforts scrubbing and washing and spraying! I read of these mistaken notions and imagined my great-grandmother wondering what she had done wrong that allowed her son to be struck down by polio.

America advanced from this early misconception of the virus, largely through heavy losses to other viruses, particularly influenza in WWI, in which America lost 44,000 to influenza compared to around 50,000 in combat-related casualties. I brought to my reading of this book only a general knowledge of the great worldwide influenza epidemic during WWI, and it was very interesting to read about how searching for a vaccine to protect America's troops from similar disease losses in WWII ultimately prepared the people and technologies in the 1940s who would also create the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

This led me to another personal connection with the book that came as a surprise. Jonas Salk is famous for developing the polio vaccine, of course, but I knew nothing about his education and research background before his landmark achievement. My son in-law will be entering grad school this fall at the University of Michigan, into the school's internationally renowned epidemiology program. He will continue his research of infectious diseases, epidemics, pandemics, and public policies to prevent and control these. It is a fascinating field. It turns out that the Michigan epidemiology program has a number of legendary figures in its hall of fame, including Jonas Salk and his mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis. Dr. Francis was the first to isolate the influenza virus, and he secured millions of dollars of government grant money to build up Michigan's epidemiology program with a specific mission to protect America's troops from influenza. Dr. Francis convinced young Jonas Salk to join the influenza research program, and Salk was a professor of epidemiology at Michigan for 6 years, focused primarily on influenza. After 6 years under Dr. Francis's wing, Salk was eager to spread his wings and create something similar to Michigan somewhere else. He chose Pittsburgh, and thanks to that school's visionary leaders, received generous private donations from Pittsburgh's wealthiest benefactors, and established his own epidemiology program at the University of Pittsburgh. Salk ever-after credited Dr. Francis and Michigan for the incredible lessons he learned about viruses, laboratory testing, and vaccine production techniques. Dr. Francis would later play a key role in lending his name and reputation to Salk's national polio vaccine trials. So my son-in-law will be walking hallowed hallways where Jonas Salk, Dr. Francis, and other luminaries in epidemiology exchanged ideas and conducted critical tests that made our world much healthier and safer from disease in 50 years of concentrated scientific effort than it had been in the prior 5000 years of medical experimentation, as the author notes.

This book goes into interesting detail about FDR and how polio affected him, and perhaps more importantly, how he affected the public' awareness of polio and willingness to donate money to help fight it. Polio was the first disease to spawn national fundraising drives, such as the March of Dimes, and this forever changed America's view of laboratories, researchers, human drug trials, and turned Salk into a national hero. I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the internal drama, ego, and envy behind the scenes, but the race to find a safe and effective vaccine was just that - a race. Races involve competition, and Albert Sabin was Salk's primary rival, only rivalry in this case would still produce something of benefit to the nation since the winners would be America's children, receiving protection against a terrible disease. The competing and different theories of Salk and Sabin made for interesting reading. One of the heartbreaking things with vaccines, as captured in some poignant vignettes in this book, is that there was an age beyond which the vaccine was not effective. Although young children received the blessed protection from the polio vaccine starting in the mid-1950s, older children and teens were not targeted to receive it and still contracted polio and died. One mother lamented that her child, dying of polio, was born less than a year too early to be eligible for the vaccine trials. We take tried and true immunizations for granted now, but in the 1950s during national trials, parents were desperate for hope and far too many had theirs crushed by timing.

Finally, this book illustrates that at one time America could unite in a common cause that could benefit its most vulnerable citizens. Rich and poor alike willingly joined forces. Fundraisers encouraged ALL Americans, with FDR's warm endorsement, to dig deeply and generously into individual and corporate pockets to help crippled children by seeking a cure for polio. There is a tendency today as there was then, to castigate the super-wealthy for not doing "enough" to help charities, but the figures who donated the most to fight polio included the Carnegies, Mellons, Rockefellers, and others. Some of these poured millions of dollars into Salk's proposed research facilities in Pittsburgh before he had become a national hero. They believed in what he was trying to do and they put their money behind their hopes for his theories. The combination of government grants at Michigan for influenza and later for polio vaccine trials, and private funding for building facilities and keeping them equipped, allowed teams of researchers to make advances that would have taken decades longer, or never happened at all. It was a terrifically effective model of a nation uniting to tackle a life-or-death problem. The nation had done this in war, but this was storming cell walls rather than beaches at Normandy, test tubes rather than enemy tanks. Living in a very divided America in 2018, I listened to this book with renewed hope that under the right conditions, our people could unite for the common good and let it bring out our best selves regardless of party or economic status. Superbly written, and skillfully narrated, this is a worthwhile audiobook in every way.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Another superb audiobook

I admit I might be biased. I contracted polio in 1952, at two years of age, in one of the biggest epidemic years before the vaccine. Many surgeries later, I'm still upright and grateful for that, although with enough handicaps to keep me humble.

A gripping story from the beginning of the book, I felt the panic that parents dealt with during the polio years, as I had heard my mom tell me about the widespread fears of parents during those years.

When we become complacent about health issues that used to terrify human beings, it's worth taking the time to read this book. It reminds me of how much we take for granted with our health. My kids have no idea what polio was and did to so many human beings. Many young parents do not want to immunize their children.

This book provides a searing look into our early 20th century American history of health related diseases. I highly recommend it as well as other books by this author. A history lesson amidst a story of America.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Fascinating

This Registered Dietitian and her Microbiologist husband (both born in the 50's) truly enjoyed this audiobook - the science, the history, and the "my parents must have been scared to death of this thing I have never had to fear in my lifetime" moments. Such thorough research but not dry at all - fascinating listen!
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