Assignment Questions

In the Wonder Drug section we have provided a selection of materials that explore the American experience of and response to the disease known as infantile paralysis. Efforts to prevent and treat this disease, which would become popularly known as polio, captured public attention in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. For this lesson, we have focused especially on the effort to develop an effective polio vaccine during this time period. The documents focus particular attention on the 1930s vaccine work of physicians Maurice Brodie, William Park, and John Kolmer, and the 1950s work of doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. The assignment choices below require you to analyze these documents and images and use this information to illuminate different facets of the American research experience during this era of medical "miracles."

Respond to one of the three following essay topics in the form of a 2-page essay, submitted to your instructor off-line.  Please note that simply addressing the series of questions given in each topic will not result in an essay; instead, use these questions to focus your thoughts as you compose a response.

1.  Although medical scientists Brodie and Park, Kolmer, Salk, and Sabin were all attempting to develop a polio vaccine, their actions and the responses to their actions demonstrate different assumptions about how medical research should be done. Carefully examine the material in the polio archives to answer these questions: What are the conventions of medical research in these two time periods? How do you know what these conventions are (for example, what document is the source of your information? )? Are these conventions the same in the two time periods or are they different? How? What more would you need to know about these incidents to clearly formulate the "rules" of medical research during the Golden Age?

2. The documents collected here suggest that in the United States vaccine research is about much more than medical science. Who takes part in the debate over the vaccine besides medical scientists? From what sources do these other interested parties draw their authority? How do you know? What do your answers to these questions tell you about the cultural authority of medicine during this period?

3. At the first President’s Birthday Ball (a fundraising event for polio research) in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt stated: "Let us well remember
that every child and indeed every person who is restored to useful
citizenship is an asset to the country and is enabled ‘to pull his own
weight in the boat.’ In the long run, by helping this work we are
contributing not to charity but to the building up of a sound Nation." What does it mean to justify contributions to medical research in terms of restoring "useful citizenship" rather than as charity? Why is
polio worthy of such cultural and scientific attention? In this context, what does it mean to be a useful American?