Health and Science

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A decade before America's "greatest generation" ended World War II with the mushroom clouds of the Manhattan Project, it turned to a different group of scientists to wipe out a virus. That effort -- to prevent polio -- didn't succeed until the postwar baby boom was well under way. By then, the disease was striking tens of thousands of U.S. children every summer, crippling many, killing some, entombing others in the iron lungs that kept them breathing. In 1952, the worst year, close to 60,000 cases were reported.

In Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio (Putnam, $25.95), Jeffrey Kluger focuses on the scientist responsible for the vaccine that, starting in 1955, largely eradicated the disease. Kluger personalizes the epidemic with sketches of children who survived or succumbed. He makes much -- but not too much -- of polio's most prominent victim, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was diagnosed in 1921 (at age 39) and went on to become the dominant American political figure of the century. And he engagingly recounts Salk's bitter feud with Albert Sabin, a rival polio researcher.

But Kluger, a senior writer at Time, is less successful as a biographer. Despite detailed research and extensive interviews with Salk family members, he doesn't reveal much of Salk the person: Did he have qualms in 1943 about giving an untested flu vaccine to a group of conscientious objectors? Was he anxious in 1953 about injecting his own children with what he thought was a safe polio vaccine? Did he care that his achievements never earned him a Nobel Prize? Kluger doesn't present evidence to answer such questions, though, to his credit, he resists speculating on behalf of Salk, who died in 1995 at the age of 80.

On balance, Kluger's book treats Salk as the national hero he became when his vaccine was declared safe and effective. David M. Oshinsky's Polio: An American Story (Oxford Univ., $30) paints a more complete picture of the campaign against polio -- and offers a more nuanced view of Salk's talents and faults.

The Salk and Sabin vaccines -- the latter became the U.S. standard a few years after Salk's triumph -- emerged not from a government-run effort but from the Roosevelt-inspired nonprofit known today as the March of Dimes. Oshinsky describes how this organization raised millions by assuring ordinary Americans that their dimes and dollars together could protect their children. With marketing, publicity and fund-raising techniques never before seen, the March of Dimes left other causes far behind.

Oshinsky, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, gives Salk his due but doesn't flinch from looking behind the hero's facade. He shows why Salk had reason to worry when the McCarthy-era FBI investigated his eligibility for a security clearance. Oshinsky also reveals why Salk's seemingly selfless remark that the patent for his vaccine belonged to "the people" was less magnanimous than it sounded. Salk did not believe that his work was novel enough to qualify the vaccine for a patent. More so than Kluger's book, this one makes plain why many of Salk's scientific colleagues refused to consider him a peer, much less a model.

Oshinsky also addresses the political dynamics of Salk's success, noting how aides to Dwight D. Eisenhower maneuvered to show that the Republican president was "just as interested as [Democrat] Franklin D. Roosevelt in polio." He goes on to relate how federal health officials failed to devise a sensible system for distributing the Salk vaccine -- a failure rooted not in incompetence but in a fear that mass inoculations would open the door to the presumed evils of "socialized medicine."

In explaining our society's high hopes for modern medicine, these two books in turn help explain the anger and despair of those who believe today that the illnesses threatening them or their children could be defeated, if only the best minds were assigned to the task.

--Tom Graham

Mercury Rising

Assigning the best minds to the task of developing vaccines to protect against debilitating illness is an unarguably noble goal, but only if those minds can be trusted to act in an unarguably noble fashion. That is an unspoken thesis of David Kirby's Evidence of Harm (St. Martin's, $26.95), which carries the hefty subtitle "Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy."

While the title suggests a balanced consideration of an issue that has pitted mainstream medicine and government agencies against a committed -- and highly vocal -- minority of activists and researchers, that is not what's presented here. Kirby, a science and health contributor to the New York Times, acknowledges as much, and he is well-served by his choice to tell the story of the dispute mainly through the "Mercury Moms." The individual efforts of these parents -- not all women -- to trace the roots of autism in their own sons led them into an alliance with one another and into the heart of an epidemic, one they came to believe was being covered up by the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government.

Whether or not one chooses to embrace their conspiracy theory, Kirby's portrayal manages to make his protagonists seem far from crazy. They have been derided as dangerous anti-vaccination zealots, but Kirby sets their focus on the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal against "modern science's near-religious faith in all things genetic."

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