Before Jonas Salk introduced his vaccine for polio in the 1950s, it disabled and killed many American children every summer. Some years were much worse than others, requiring health officials to shut down swimming pools and movie theaters. My mother remembers a summer in San Antonio when she was not allowed to go anywhere that the virus might be found. Years later, I remember a friend who wore a leg brace because he had contracted polio as an infant. I also remember going to our school cafeteria in the early 1960s to orally take the vaccine on a sugar cube.
In Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio, science writer Jeffrey Kluger profiles reluctant hero Dr. Jonas Salk, who was born in New York at a time when infantile paralysis was an annual concern in the city. Mothers hid their children from the health department patrols, who combed neighborhoods looking for suspiciously ill youths. Salk's mother was especially diligent, making sure he always washed his hands and did not play with other children in the streets. She wanted him to become a rabbi, but he chose to become a doctor dedicated to disease research instead. Before work on polio, he helped develop influenza vaccine.
Though polio primarily attacked young people, it occasionally infected adults, including failed vice presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt. Kluger tells how the future president went to Warm Springs, Georgia seeking treatment in the hot water. His buying the old resort that he modified for polio victims led to the creation of the March of Dimes, which later funded Salk's work.
The story of the development of the vaccine is filled with disappointments and controversies. I enjoyed hearing Splendid Solution read by Michael Prichard, who I have heard on other nonfiction audio books. Baby boomers who grew up in the wake of the polio epidemic will enjoy reading about their roots. Medical professionals will also find the story inspiring.
Kluger, Jeffrey. Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. G.P. Putnam's Sons, c2004. ISBN 0399152164.
Audiobook: Tantor Media, 2005. 11 compact discs. ISBN 1400101492