Book Club: The Story of the Polio Vaccine

The Science History Institute book club reads David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.

By Sarah Reisert | March 15, 2019
Polio vaccine dropped on to sugar lump for child patient.

Polio vaccine dropped on to sugar lump for child patient.

Wellcome Images

Hello and a happy (belated) New Year from the Science History Institute Book Club. Our first book for 2019 is David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.

For us, living in a world nearly free of polio, it’s difficult to imagine what it was like when almost every summer children fell ill, became paralyzed, and sometimes died from a disease people didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Parents warned their children to stay away from swimming holes and movie theaters. Kids trying to get out of cities plagued by polio were turned away from towns by signs reading “Children under 16 not allowed to enter this town.”

Into the fray stepped the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known by its fundraising name, the March of Dimes. Oshinsky chronicles the work of the foundation—how it partnered with polio survivor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, its massive fundraising campaigns, and its search for a cure. But a cure never came. Instead, two scientists working to eradicate polio created two very different vaccines.

Jonas Salk believed in a killed-virus vaccine. Albert Sabin believed a live-virus vaccine was the way to go. The two camps argued for decades, though each developed an effective vaccine, both of which are used to this day. Salk’s vaccine was ready first, and Americans were on tenterhooks during the massive nationwide trial that followed. Could the vaccine stop this insidious disease? People still remember where they were on the historic day in 1955 when the trial results were announced.

In book club we talked about the role of prejudice in people’s understanding of how polio spread: immigrants were targeted as disease carriers, as were open-pit toilets on the “Latin American” and “Negro” side of town. There was also a belief that African Americans were less likely than white Americans to get polio (wrong). While we like to think we’ve come a long way since then, there are still plenty of prejudices at work in medicine and health care. Studies repeatedly show that white Americans believe black Americans have higher thresholds for pain, so black patients are routinely undertreated for pain. Similarly, many studies show that doctors hold significant prejudices against overweight patients, which affects their level of care.

We also talked a bit about the patent system. Salk famously said of his vaccine, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Today patents play a big part in the availability and affordability of drugs. Two of us in book club are asthma sufferers, and we had some thoughts about the patent system and how it’s been keeping the cost of inhalers unreasonably high for much longer than it should have.

Here are some of our official discussion questions for you to mull over if you’re reading along with us at home:

1. The first polio vaccine tests were conducted on prisoners and institutionalized children. Prisoners are still subjects of study today, though as Scientific American reported in 2014, “firm protections have been erected for prison populations in medical research, predicated on the idea that even when prisoners volunteer for inclusion in clinical trials, coercion might still be playing a role. As a result, the U.S. and other countries have implemented such tight controls on prison population participation that inmates are often left out of research entirely.” Do you think prisoners have the right to participate in clinical trials just like any other citizen? Or do you think the potential for abuse is so strong that these protections need to remain in place?

2. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was a fundraising machine. In 1954 its donations amounted to almost half of the money raised by the top eight health charities combined, and all for a disease that affected only 100,000 people a year. The inclination to give to a (for lack of a better term) “sexy” cause rather than to the diseases that are more likely to kill us remains a problem to this day. (Take a look at this chart from 2014, which has some problems but is still useful.) Why do we do this? How might we change this so that deadlier diseases can get the funding they need?

3. Walter Winchell, “founding father of celebrity gossip,” almost torpedoed the 1954 Salk vaccine trial by claiming the vaccine might lead to fatal cases of polio. The claim wasn’t entirely without scientific merit, but it came from a science writer who had an ax to grind with the foundation president Basil O’Connor. What is the role of the press in scientific reporting specifically when it comes to protecting human welfare?

Our next book is The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. And if you’re particularly interested in dark matter, why not come out to the Science History Institute on Saturday, March 9, for our Discovering Dark Matter event? This is a great opportunity to speak with a dark-matter expert in person!

Exciting news, everyone: the Science History Institute Book Club has a Facebook group! If you’ve been reading along with us at home, you now can interact with Institute staff and other fans of books about science and the history of science. So hit up your local library or nearby bookshop, and join us for a full year of reading, talking, and nerding out!