Saturday, August 18, 2012

Polio, Terror and Panic in America

If you are of a certain age in the United States, you will remember at least some of the rampant fear caused by the disease poliomyelitis, often called polio or infantile paralysis.  Born in 1954, the year a vaccine was discovered by Dr. Jonus Salk (followed the year after by Dr. Albert Sabin), I can still remember it being a major concern of my parents when I was a very young child.  Parents were still warning their children against public swimming pools and drinking fountains in the carefree days of summer.  It was a worrisome time for parents, as polio most often struck the young.  Dr. Salk's vaccine dealt with a dead virus.  Dr. Sabin's dealt with a live virus.  The Sabin vaccine given on a sugar cube was the norm when I received my dosage.  I remember being in a school in a long line and going up on the stage to receive it.  Summer and early fall seemed to be the time for the worst outbreaks of this notorious predator of youth, and the most dreaded kind of polio was the paralytic polio, which could rob one of the use of one or all of their limbs.  As if there could be an even more feared outcome, the virus would sometimes paralyze group muscles in the chest that controlled breathing, in which case the patient would be encased in an iron lung ( ).  Too often, death followed this severe stage.  I viewed the "Whatever Happened to Polio" exhibit at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History during its 2005/2006 tour, and I was able to examine an actual iron lung, an daunting apparatus indeed.  Of course, many students have learned of this disease through their history books, where one of the most famous polio victims, 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who contracted poliomyelitis in 1921 at age 39, an age considered well past the prime age target of the disease, is acknowledged for his vast contributions to our country's past and future.  FDR was aslo a major force in the research and treatment of polio.  There was and is no cure for polio, only convalescent care and supporting therapies.  My only real up close and personal experience with a polio victim was the acquaintance of a neighborhood girl, who was three years older than I.  I can still picture the braces on her legs and her difficulty in maneuvering her environment.  It was so amazing what a few years meant in the danger of polio and the vaccine to combat it.  "In the immediate pre-vaccine era (i.e., early 1950s), between 13,000 and 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year.  After the development of the inactivated (Salk) injectable vaccine in 1955 and the live (Sabin) oral vaccine in 1961, the number of polio cases dropped dramatically.  In 1960, there were 2,525 paralytic cases reported, but by 1965 this number had fallen to 61.  Due to a concentrated effort to eradicate polio from the world, there have been no cases of 'wild' (i.e., natural) polio acquired in the United States since 1979, and no cases of wild polio acquired in the entire Western Hemisphere since 1991." (

The following site, fueled by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and based on their 2005/2006 exhibit, is an excellent one from which to learn about polio in the United States: 

“The fear of polio was a fear of something you had no defense against, something that hit without logic or reason. Yesterday, it was the man down the block. Today it could be you or your children.”
—Larry Alexander, 1954

The above information provides only a modicum of background in relation to the two books I recently read about polio.  I am including my reviews of the books, one non-fiction and one fiction, below.  Also, I'm including the cover of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in history, Polio: An Americana Story, written by David M. Oshinsky.  I have read bits and parts of this much acclaimed book while reading the two reviewed books.  I, of course, plan on completing such an important historical account.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio HavenWarm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first reason that I read this book is because the author, Susan Richards Shreve, is to be an attending author at the 2012 National Book Festival in D.C., which I also plan to attend.  While the author has many fiction titles unrelated to polio from which to choose, I wanted to read her non-fiction account of her struggles with polio and her time spent at FDR's famous Warm Springs.  I have only known one person in a personal sense who was struck with polio, but it has always piqued my curiosity.  I was a child born in 1954, when the polio vaccine was brand new, and I remember the sugar cubes we received coated with the vaccine.  I have found that in most non-fictional accounts, which are usually memoirs, which I have read about polio that I learn a little something new and different with each book.  Such was the case with Ms. Shreve's book. I enjoyed reading about FDR's history with Warm Springs and its subsequent use as a polio haven.  Susan Richards was 11 years old when she arrived at Warm Springs and stayed for two years.  In writing the book, Shreve helped to refresh her memory by referring to an account of her stay written in her youth entitled Wooden and Wicker.  She states that it was a huge help in refreshing what her 11-year-old/12-year-old self thought and felt at that time, and I think her access to this account helped lend an authenticity to the book otherwise unattainable.  Don't read this book expecting to obtain an all-encompassing history or view of polio in the 1940's and 1950's.  As I have already stated, reading different memoirs and some fictional accounts each give you important insight upon which to build a knowledge and understanding of the dreaded disease of polio, which struck so much fear into the parents of young children in America.  For more comprehensive reading, I would suggest Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky, a history from which Ms. Shreve drew information for her book and which I have read in bits and parts, too.  So, read Warm Springs for a glimpse into the world of polio and add it to your collection of sources on the subject.  

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had just finished reading a non-fiction, memoir account of a polio victim, and I came across, to my surprise, a fictional book dealing with polio by Philip Roth.  I was curious how it would stack up to the recent and other non-fiction books about polio that I'd read.  Well, as with much historical-fiction, I feel as if I learned a great deal about the scourge that was polio and its affect on communities.  Roth's protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is a 23-year-old college graduate who is a PE teacher and summertime playground director at Chancellor Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey.  Bucky had a rough start in life, but he was fortunate to be raised by his hard-working, honest grandparents who believed Bucky could succeed.  His poor eyesight kept him out of WWII, but his athleticism allowed him to be a leader for the boys on his playground that summer of 1944, the summer that Newark would suffer a terrifying polio outbreak.  Bucky's best attribute is his devotion to helping others; his worst attribute is his taking responsibility for the blameless.  His decision on whether to join his girlfriend in the Poconos as a summer camp counselor and leave the ravaged streets of Newark and his boys is a crisis of faith for Bucky.  The fallout from that decision will determine the paths of many.  As with the non-fiction titles about polio that I've read, I came away from Roth's slim novel with new and intriguing information about polio.  Roth's masterful power of description greatly enhanced the experience of learning.  My only real complaint about the novel is the narration format.  It's not that I minded another character, other than Bucky, being the narrator, but that the character was alluded to in a rather thinly veiled reference early in the book and not clearly revealed until the last of the book.  I would have preferred that the book opened up with an undisguised narrator.  Having said that, I do think that Roth created an excellent venue to tell not only of the fear and horror of that summer of polio, but he created a character that revealed a struggle with perfection in an imperfect world.