Who is David Oshinsky, and what is important about his book Polio: An American Story?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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David Oshinsky is a historian who has written several books, such as American Passages in which he offers a thorough explanation of how time enters into the historical equation as event leads to event and affects history in its era. His book Polio:An American Story demonstrates Oshinsky's comprehensive research and meticulous adherence to detail.

His is not a medical chronicle of the virulent disease that frightened a country in the early part of the twentieth century; rather, it is a record of the people who researched the frightening disease of poliomyelitis, or polio, isolating the virus and discovering its path of entry into the human body. As Bill Gates writes in his review of Oshinsky's book,

He’s a gifted storyteller who makes complex scientific subjects easy to understand and also captures the mood of a country terrorized by an invisible and little-understood disease.

Indeed, there is a narrative thread that sews together the history of polio, the medical research, the researchers involved, and their errors and discoveries. In this weaving of the history of polio and the discovery of vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, Oshinsky creates a human story as he mentions famous people struck by it such as Sir Walter Scott, men involved in this struggle to research this disease, such as Simon Flexner, a self-taught druggist, who was afforded an education at the University of Louisville Medical School and later, with the help of his brother, entered into pathology at John Hopkins. At the Rockefeller Institute, Flexner found a cure for meningitis and determined that "infantile paralysis" entered the nervous system through the nose. But, he was wrong because he experimented on a Rhesus monkey. This breed of monkey cannot have the virus replicate in its digestive tract. Had he used another breed, he would have made the discovery needed.

In Chapter 9 the readers are introduced to Jonas Salk and learns much about the man's personal world, as they have with Simon Flexner. This style is so appropriate for modern readers who enjoy human interest stories and reality television, because Oshinsky makes such fantastic scientists more "everyday" to his readers, thus keeping their interest in his narrative. At the same time, he teaches the history of the era in which these great men lived with description so vivid that those who have lived in these times have memories awakened in them, conjuring up their own memories.

Later, the readers meet some of the "faceless heroes" such as 

Percival Bazeley, a veterinarian from Australia, to run the virus production process [for Salk]

and Julius Youngner, who invented a "remarkable" color test to note the presence of live virus in the vaccine. 

Oshinsky ends his book with mention of the World Health Organization which has identified polio in third world countries and the efforts of Rotary and other organizations to immunize the children of these places.

Thorough and interesting, Oshinsky's book is both an educational and scientific account of polio as well as a well-executed narrative.

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