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Reviewed by:
  • Polio
  • Heather Green Wooten
Daniel J. Wilson. Polio. Biographies of Disease Series. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABCClio/Greenwood, 2009. x + 171 pp. Ill. $45.00 (978-0-3133-5897-5).

"I'm afraid it's polio." Few phrases instilled more fear in American parents during the 1940s and 1950s. These words, often uttered by a family physician, heralded a life suddenly turned upside down as the stricken confronted a world of pain, paralysis, hospitals, numerous caregivers, and separation from loved ones. Even after extensive rehabilitation, many lives affected by polio remained irreparably altered.

The threat of polio haunted everyone. Polio randomly attacked male and female, black and white, from rural communities to suburbia. No one knew how to prevent the disease from striking again, nor predict who the victims would be. The capricious nature of polio contributed further to the fear. An attack of polio often began with mild flu-like symptoms, characteristic of many other diseases, until the emergence of paralysis.

Unable to halt the disease, public health officials implemented a variety of methods to prevent outbreaks. However, once polio struck, there was little physicians could do other than keep the patient comfortable and let the disease run its course.

Himself a polio survivor, Daniel J. Wilson has written a concise and compelling history of this disease. The latest addition to the Biographies of Disease Series, Polio effectively chronicles the dreadful scourge of poliomyelitis and the emergence of its cruel sequel, postpolio syndrome (PPS). In recent years, medical and lay historians have utilized the groundwork laid by John Rodman Paul's landmark study, [End Page 539] A History of Poliomyelitis, to explore this disease from the epidemic standpoint and the national polio crusades. These narratives have been augmented by numerous polio survivor memoirs. Written with characteristically engaging prose, Wilson's work advances the historiography of this disease one step further. By combining Paul's biographical premise with the testimony of polio survivors, Wilson transports the argument to twenty-first-century ethical concerns and issues. Through the effectual incorporation of polio memoir, Wilson adds depth and context to the polio experience.

Wilson launches his narrative on a personal note. Through a description of the alarming events surrounding his initial attack of polio at the age of five, Wilson sets the stage for a carefully crafted study of this disease. The work is underlined by three major theses. The first underscores the ultimate role of modernization in the polio story, in relation to both the emergence of polio as an epidemic disease and hastening the development of virology. Polio epidemics also had significant impact upon American social and cultural norms. In particular, the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the ultimate polio success story helped transform the polio experience. With Roosevelt as a model, polio survivors eschewed the heretofore life of seclusion in back bedrooms or institutions, choosing instead to tenaciously infiltrate the American mainstream. Finally, the profound influence of polio survivors remained evident as they championed disability rights and polio eradication throughout the globe. Yet, Wilson notes, "Living a long life with polio turned out to be more complicated than patients or physicians imagined during the height of the polio epidemics" (p. 126). Up to 50 percent of polio survivors are now confronting "one last surprise" (p. 136): the debilitating effects of PPS. As a result, many polio survivors are returning to the crutches, wheelchairs, and breathing devices extensive rehabilitation had enabled them to shed years before.

Composed with a crisp, engaging style, Polio promises to connect with both academic and general audiences. In addition, Wilson encourages readers to explore this disease further on their own by including a detailed timeline, glossary of terms, and concise bibliography. Anyone seeking a well-researched, universal history of polio will deem this book enriching and worthwhile.

Heather Green Wooten
University of Houston-Clear Lake
W.H. Kellar Consulting


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pp. 539-540
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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