This book provides parallel biographies of Jonas Salk and the campaign to conquer the polio virus.
Today we tend to forget how scary polio was. Its psychological impact was especially devastating because it attacked mostly children. Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered the most frightening public health problem of the post-war United States. Annual epidemics were increasingly devastating. The 1952 epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children.
One of the puzzling ironies of polio is that it became more prevalent as society began to control other infectious diseases through improved sanitation and water supplies. The best theory to explain this irony is that prior to the 20th century the polio virus was prevalent but immunity to it was widespread. This is because prior to the 20th century the population was exposed to a constant and low level of the virus through the poorer sanitation conditions that were generally present. This condition enhanced a natural immunity within the population. When the environment became less contaminated the prevailing immunity to polio was consequently decreased. Of people exposed to the polio virus, only 5 percent have symptoms. Of those who become ill, one in twenty of the cases are fatal.
One thing I don't understand is where the virus disappeared to in the winter months. Its occurrence was seasonal with it returning with warm weather. If it needed a human host it seems like it should get worse in the winter (like the common cold) when people are in close proximity to each other.
The author did a very good job of including various human interest stories. The horror of the disease was brought home to the reader by telling the stories of some of victims. Even though the reader knows how the story is going to end, the narrative unfolds in such a way that it builds suspense. The book reads like a medical thriller.
One thing I noticed is that Albert Sabin (developer of the oral polio vaccine) comes across in this book as a jealous small minded competitor of Salk's. He was critical of Salk at every step of his research and recommend that Salk's vaccine not be used because he thought his own vaccine based on a live virus would be better. The only problem was his vaccine was a couple years later in development, and waiting for it would cause thousands more to be victimized.
The book tells of Salk's home life. I fell in love with his family consisting of his wife Carol and three boys. One touching scene is when one of his young sons hides under his bed to avoid getting a shot of the vaccine. I was saddened to learn in the book's epilog that Jonas and Carol were later divorced. I fear that Salk may be another one of those men who switched to a younger trophy wife after he became rich and famous.
The book includes some critical remarks about Jonas Salk. His failure to thank his laboratory staff at the public announcement of the vaccine's success is mentioned several times. Apparently, some of his colleagues never forgave him for it.