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Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

December 9th, 2012 · No Comments · Book Group, Books, City Library, Main Branch

One time when my father and I were talking about our family’s history, he wistfully talked about Stella.  Stella would have been my second cousin, and she had been quite close to my father while he was a growing up. When she was a young woman, just starting her own family, she got sick.  She caught polio, sickened, and died.  She had been a strong and vibrant woman.  My father says I often remind him of her, telling me funny stories of the things he remembers her doing.  I believe she was quite a character!

My family wasn’t the only one affected by the polio virus.  Many were, and when the polio vaccine was discovered it was a Godsend.  “Splendid Solution” is a nonfiction account by Time magazine senior writer, Jonas Kluger, on the discovery of the polio vaccine.  It has been called a “can’t put down medical science history.”

The terror once caused by polio, now mostly forgotten, is vividly portrayed at the onset of “Splendid Solution”, which begins in New York City in 1916. The sources of hysteria are all too evident: nurses and policemen roam the streets in search of lame children; black cars patrol neighborhoods, bringing doctors who search homes for paralyzed children. Quarantining children in city hospitals in an attempt to stem the disease was a disruptive practice and had no benefit, because many years later it became clear that paralytic cases represented a small fraction of all the infected individuals. For each paralytic case, there were 99 individuals infected with the virus but displaying no symptoms of the disease. Poliomyelitis was truly a terror because no one quite understood how it was transmitted or how it could be prevented and its victims were seemingly chosen at random.

Jonas Salk’s inactivated vaccine reduced the incidence of poliomyelitis in the United States from 57,879 cases in 1952 to 1,312 cases in 1961. As a result of his research, Salk became a cultural hero, an unusual role for a scientist. The road to that scientific discovery was not smooth, though, as evidenced in “Splendid Solution”.

So plan to join us on Thursday evening, December 13th, from 7 to 8:30 PM for a lively discussion of this intriguing book. For more information please contact Sarah at 624-6560.

See you at the book discussion!

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