Book review: Paralysed with Fear, by Gareth Williams

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 2:40pm

Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio
by Gareth Williams
4 stars

Wendy Moore

For anyone over the age of 50, polio still casts nightmarish shadows of children hobbling in leg irons and adults confined in wheelchairs.

Polio, as Gareth Williams suggests in his fascinating study, was one of the diseases that defined the 20th century. It also defines the history of medicine.

Polio was virtually unknown before the end of the 19th century. Although the disease was first noted in 1789, only isolated cases surfaced until the first epidemic struck a French village in 1885. From then on, polio gathered strength: there were epidemics in North America from the 1890s, Scandinavia from the early 1900s, and Britain, Africa and Australia over the following 40 years. Scientists blame this sudden upsurge on better sanitation, which prevented babies coming into contact with the virus while they still enjoyed maternal immunity.

While it was plain from the outset that the disease was contagious, doctors and charlatans competed with each other to blame outlandish causes, including cats (70,000 cats were massacred during the 1916 panic in New York), blueberries, milk, sugar and Italian immigrants.

In the US, fear reached extreme levels. Polio was listed in 1952 as Americans' greatest fear after nuclear attack. Inspired by the disease's most famous victim, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was paralysed by polio in 1921, Americans raised millions of dollars in campaigns for research.

Worldwide co-operation by scientists working towards a common goal might have resulted in a speedy conquest. Instead, polio prospered while scientists argued, championing their pet theories in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In the meantime, millions of patients died or were paralysed. These were the real heroes, as Williams illustrates in personal stories of children who suffered agonising lumbar punctures and spent years in hospitals where parents were allowed to visit only once a month.

The race for a vaccine produced the worst behaviour yet: early pioneers in the 1930s were discouraged and their efforts derided. In 1954, Jonas Salk produced an injectable vaccine using a deactivated virus; two years later, Albert Sabin produced an oral vaccine from attenuated - or weakened - virus.

Thanks - eventually - to worldwide collaboration polio might well soon become history. But, as Williams' punchy book reveals, that history is quite extraordinary.

Guardian News & Media