Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

by Jeffrey Kluger

With rivalries, reversals, and a race against time, the struggle to eradicate polio is one of the great tales of modern history.

It begins with the birth of Jonas Salk, shortly before one of the worst polio epidemics in United States history.

At the time, the disease was a terrifying enigma: striking from out of nowhere, it afflicted tens of thousands of children in this country each year and left them-literally overnight-paralyzed, and sometimes at death's door.

By the early 1950s, Salk had already helped create an influenza vaccine, and was hot on the trail of the polio virus.

In early 1954, Salk was weighing the possibility of trials of a not-yet-perfected vaccine against-as the summer approached-the prospect of thousands more children being struck down by the disease.

The results of the history-making trials were announced at a press conference on April 12, 1955: "The vaccine works." The room-and an entire nation-erupted in cheers for this singular medical achievement.

Salk's work was an unparalleled achievement-and it makes for a magnificent read.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Nonfiction
  • Rating: 4.04
  • Pages: 384
  • Publish Date: January 27th 2005 by Putnam Adult
  • Isbn10: 0399152164
  • Isbn13: 9780399152160

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Kluger weaves together a gripping story about how polio consumed the public mood in the early-to-mid 20th century and about the scientific work to eradicate it. Salk, as a younger researcher working Tommy Franciss lab in Michigan, was an integral part of the team that made the first flu vaccine.

This book provides parallel biographies of Jonas Salk and the campaign to conquer the polio virus. Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered the most frightening public health problem of the post-war United States. 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. Of people exposed to the polio virus, only 5 percent have symptoms. 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. The book includes some critical remarks about Jonas Salk.

But the reason I can only give this book 3 stars is its relentless positive spin on all of Salk's actions. The endless heroic spin (I got it the first time Salk's skill with giving kids shots was detailed; did it have to be repeated every time?) seemed to lead to nearly demonizing other researchers, particularly Sabin, and making every choice he made look faultless (should we not explore where the line between confidence and dangerous overconfidence is, particularly given the history of earlier polio shots?).

A well-dramatized telling of the Salk polio vaccine's origins. But sometimes it felt like the author focused too much on the researchers' human drama---Salk's killed-virus vaccine vs. Until someone offered a better deal, this was the one they would have to take." * p.228: Sabin, a "rival" scientists, thinks a live-virus vaccine would work better than Salk's killed-virus vaccine (but doesn't have one ready yet himself). When Congress deliberates on Salk's field trial, Sabin says: "I for one, would strongly oppose large-scale work on hundreds of thousands of children based on the work of any one investigator..." which is a reasonable argument. * p.234: Nice quick summary of double-blind trial vs observational controls. But what justified Salk's faith in his vaccine, without the gold standard of a double-blind trial? * p.238: If Salk thought it's unethical to give placebos (and hence preferred observational controls over a double-blind trial)... * p.242: Tommy Francis (Salk's former supervisor/mentor) led the design and analysis of the major field trial, and he convinced Salk to go for a double-blind rather than observational-control study. The argument presented here is from authority: "If Francis, of all people, said a double-blind trial was the best possible one he could conduct, Salk would accept that." Surely there was much more to Francis-convincing-Salk than that! What are the statistical methods for combining such results?) * p.245: Another curious moral question, once Salk was convinced of his vaccine's value (but before field tests were complete), about whether to give some to family & friends.

In the book Splendid Solution Jeffrey Kluger explains the panic and desperation felt by many during the polio epidemic. He highlights the life of Jonas Salk and his conquest to create a vaccination that would prevent children from contracting polio. The book Splendid Solutions offers great information about the fear of everyone in the United States during the polio epidemic.

As someone born years after Salk's vaccine made polio a distant memory, I really appreciated Kluger's decision to discuss polio in the context of American society during the first half of the 20th century. Reading the stories posted by Iowans who remember polio, I realize there are a lot of details about the disease, especially it's treatment that I would I would have liked to read more about, but I understand that a book about the polio vaccine is going to focus on prevention rather than treatment.

I was drawn to this book after watching a Salk documentary where I learned that this incredibly selfless and humanitarian scientist refused to patent his namesaked polio vaccination because he wanted to make sure it saved all the lives it could save. Kluger definitely did his homework and I enjoyed learning about one of the great endeavors in American history. He reacted with great equanimity to people who were cruel and unfair to him including the wacko from Miami and fellow polo vaccine pioneer Albert Sabin.

Prior to joining TIME, he was a staff writer for Discover magazine, where he wrote the Light Elements humor column. He was also a writer and editor for New York Times Business World Magazine, Family Circle, and Science Digest.