Many Americans can still recall when the word "polio" had the same chilling effect that "cancer" and "AIDS" have today. But owing to vaccines created in the early 1950s, the disease was virtually eradicated in the U.S. by the mid-1970s. In 2003, only 700 cases of the crippling affliction were reported throughout the world. Also known as "infantile paralysis," polio hit children hardest. But adults succumbed as well, most notably the man who would become America's 32nd president and the plague's fiercest opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Kluger, a senior writer for Time and the co-author (with Jim Lovell) of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage Of Apollo 13, begins Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk And The Conquest Of Polio in the summer of 1916. During that hot and terrible season, 27,000 people were stricken across the country; 6,000 of them died. In New York City, where there were more than 9,300 cases reported, one of the lucky children who avoided infection that summer was two-year-old Jonas Salk. Within two decades, his and Roosevelt's paths would converge not literally, to be sure, but in a shared determination to thwart the calamity. Roosevelt would call attention to the disease and help set up the mechanism to finance the resistance; Salk and dozens of equally determined colleagues would embark on the arduous trail to develop an effective vaccine.
Drawing heavily on official documents and interviews with Salk's three physician sons, Kluger depicts a man who was tireless and single-minded in pursuing a cure, suspicious of the media in matters of science but aware of its utility, and capable of being self-effacing and diplomatic when he needed to be. Providing just the right degree of tension is fellow researcher Albert Sabin, who routinely denigrated Salk's discoveries. The source of their tension, other than professional competitiveness, was the question of what condition of polio viruses was best suited for a vaccine. Salk constructed his from dead viruses, while Sabin maintained that only live ones would work as needed. Ultimately, both men made major contributions to eradicating the disease.
As prospects mounted for a successful assault on polio, Salk found himself transformed from a fairly anonymous drone into a controversial public figure. Nationally syndicated columnists Earl Wilson and Walter Winchell touted or assailed his discoveries, Life dispatched photographers to his laboratory and Time awarded him a cover.
In Splendid Solution Kluger does a fine job of resurrecting another time and of demonstrating the drama that always attends significant scientific breakthroughs.