2006 Pulitzer Prize for History
Synopses & Reviews
Here David Oshinsky tells the gripping story of the polio terror and of the intense effort to find a cure, from the March of Dimes to the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines and beyond. Drawing on newly available papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and other key players, Oshinsky paints a suspenseful portrait of the race for the cure, weaving a dramatic tale centered on the furious rivalry between Salk and Sabin. He also tells the story of Isabel Morgan, perhaps the most talented of all polio researchers, who might have beaten Salk to the prize if she had not retired to raise a family.
Oshinsky offers an insightful look at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was founded in the 1930s by FDR and Basil O'Connor, it revolutionized fundraising and the perception of disease in America. Oshinsky also shows how the polio experience revolutionized the way in which the government licensed and tested new drugs before allowing them on the market, and the way in which the legal system dealt with manufacturers' liability for unsafe products. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Oshinsky reveals that polio was never the raging epidemic portrayed by the media, but in truth a relatively uncommon disease. But in baby-booming America increasingly suburban, family-oriented, and hygiene-obsessed the specter of polio, like the specter of the atomic bomb, soon became a cloud of terror over daily life.
Both a gripping scientific suspense story and a provocative social and cultural history, Polio opens a fresh window onto postwar America.
"The key protagonists in historian Oshinsky's (Univ. of Texas, Austin) account of the bruising scientific race to create a vaccine are Jonas Salk, a proponent of a 'killed-virus' vaccine, and Albert Sabin, who championed the 'live-virus' vaccine. As revered as these men are in popular culture, Oshinsky records their contemporaries' less complimentary opinions (even Sabin's friends, for instance, describe him as 'arrogant, egotistical and occasionally cruel'). Oshinsky (A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, etc.) looks at social context, too, such as the impact of the March of Dimes campaign on public consciousness and fear of polio. Tying in the role polio victim FDR played in making the effort a national priority, the precursory scientific developments that aided Salk and Sabin's work, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding human testing, Oshinsky sometimes bogs down in details. But all in all, this is an edifying description of one of the most significant public health successes in U.S. history. 46 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A rich and illuminating analysis that convincingly grounds the ways and means of modern American research in the response to polio." New York Times
"A thorough history. Readable, often exciting, filled with ambitious characters, it is science writing at its most engrossing." Chicago Tribune
"This lively, entertaining and informative book will help readers who didn't experience polio understand both the terror it caused and the competing social and political urges that eventually conquered it." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
About the Author
David M. Oshinsky is George Littlefield Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. A leading historian of modern American politics and society, he is the author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy and Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, both of which won major prizes and were New York Times Notable Books.