BOOKS; On the trail of the serial crippler
A SUMMER PLAGUE: Polio and its Survivors by Tony Gould, Yale University Press £19.95 People thought they'd caught polio from forbidden blueberries or from mowing the lawn
Sunday 07 May 1995
Until recently he had no real connection with the wider world of polio, either. He coped with his condition, worked in journalism and radio, married twice and had three kids. He had written about his own experience several times, but he knew little of the broader picture, of the many waves of the epidemic, of the struggle for its eradication. His book thus has an appealing freshness, and his fascination in his researches rubs off.
His account is split broadly into two sections: an anecdotal, well-read thematic history, and a series of personal interviews, including some thoughts on his own experiences. Though polio had made sporadic appearances in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and England decades earlier, it made its first indelible impact in New York in 1916 and has ever since been associated with America: partly because there were 27,000 cases in its first epidemic, 6,000 of whom died, the vast majority of them children; and partly because its longest serving president contracted polio in middle age and devoted colossal energy to improving the understanding and treatment of the disease.
The Franklin D Roosevelt story is valuable less as an example of courage (his wealth and position made his condition rather easier to bear than that of most polio sufferers), but as a display of political spin. His efforts produced the revolutionary rehabilitation resort Warm Springs and the fund- raising campaign the "March of Dimes" - but his own condition was continually played down for public consumption. Of the 35,000 photographs of FDR in the Presi-dential Library, only two show him in the wheelchair to which he was confined from the age of 40. As Gould observes, this would have been unthinkable today, but the media cooperated - partly because they had themselves pinned their hopes on him in a time of depression, and partly because they were coerced by his aides: it was not unknown for film to be ripped from cameras.
In Britain, polio was most severe just after the Second World War - in 1947 there were almost 8,000 cases. But Gould suggests that popular concern was only truly galvanised in 1959 with the death of England international footballer Jeff Hall. The year before, the public had been slow to take up Jonas Salk's new vaccine; after Hall's death, the queues at the clinics exhausted supplies.
Soon there would be two vaccines, Salk's "killed" version and Albert Sabin's oral "live" vaccine, the one most of us received on sugar lumps (until dentists objected). Gould is particularly engaging on the pair's rivalry, and that strange world to which Salk was later confined, "caught between science and celebrity, between active research and mystico-philosophical musing". There is always a danger of telling medical history in terms of heroes and villains, and Gould cannot always avoid this. But his decoding of the myth surrounding the self-styled "Sister" Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian who developed a new "hot pack" treatment, is particularly effective.
The story of polio has many parallels with Aids, not least in its terrible tales of suffering compounded by prejudice, jealousy and wild theorising: originally it was thought black children were immune; infected people thought they had caught polio from forbidden blueberries or from mowing the lawn when it was too hot out. There is hope, of course: in England and Wales there have been fewer than 100 new cases in the past two decades. And there is still much despair: in India it is estimated there may be 400,000 new cases every year.
Gould concludes his study with tightly edited personal testimonies, including accounts from Ian Dury and the late East End GP David Widgery. "It was real Nazi-time," Widgery remembered of his early electro-galvanic treatment in which copper plates were placed on either side of his knee. "You'd get up to the limit of pain you could bear and the muscles of the calf and the thigh would go into spasm."
As a moving description of the personal impact of the virus these interviews would be hard to beat, and one can only regret that Tony Gould's outstanding book will not reach the health officials in those developing countries where "the crippler" still casts its longest shadows.
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