Polio in the American Experience

butt shot.jpg (31602 bytes)Americans now rarely die of polio, or from simple infections, or childbirth. When we consider the reasons why Americans live healthier, longer lives at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning, we often first attribute this change to the effect of "wonder drugs." As you have seen while working through the other sections of this site, the reasons for the twentieth-century decline in mortality are many and varied. However, the popular and scientific allure of the wonder drug is strong. This section explores American efforts to create a wonder drug, a vaccine, for a specific disease, polio. 

We have chosen polio as a case study to illustrate the connections among patients’ experience of disease, the regulation of medicine, and scientists’ research on disease. In the period this website is focused on, 1930 to 1950, the disease of polio had a host of cultural connotations, beginning with the name by which it was then known –infantile paralysis. Images of crippled children run throughout this site, but the period’s most famous sufferer from polio was President Franklin Roosevelt. Appropriate scientific conduct, the desire for a cure, and the meaning of disability are just a few of the themes that run through this material. As you work through this section, be aware of these themes and on the lookout for others.

This section is organized around a central timeline. This timeline covers selected events in the history of polio and vaccine research from 1796 to the present. A variety of materials are placed on this timeline, including specific events, scientific publications, and participants’ recollections.

elvis.jpg (25512 bytes)Supplementing this timeline are several archives in which we have gathered a selection of primary source material, including photographs, newspaper articles, popular magazine articles, and scientific writings. These represent some of the materials historians use to construct their interpretations of the past. In this section, we ask you to examine these materials to construct your own understanding of the cultural and scientific significance of polio research.

You may choose to preview the assignments for this section before entering the main body of this section.

Structure & Strategy

Wonder Drugs has four major parts. While you should feel free to indulge your curiosity when exploring the Golden Age site, we designed this section with the assumption that you are already familiar with the concepts and techniques used in the Experience and Regulation sections.

edward_jenner_small.jpg (1851 bytes) The Timeline pulls together a number of events related to the history of polio vaccine research in the United States. This timeline is by no means comprehensive; but is meant to serve as an anchor and a reference point for the materials we have gathered here. As you work through materials in the Research Archives, you should refer back to the Timeline for a look at the context in which these primary sources appeared.

Our Research Archives contain a number of primary historical sources, both text and image, related to polio vaccine in the U.S. Again, these archives are not comprehensive, and there are many avenues for further research. We have tried to use the reproduction capabilities of the Web to bring to a larger audience materials that are not currently electronically indexed. Users of this site interested in further explorations of popular sources in American health history could begin by consulting the New York Times Index and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, available in library reference departments.  Users interested in locating primary source materials in the history of American biomedicine should consult the electronic database Medline for materials produced after 1966; and for earlier materials the Index-Catalogue of the Surgeon General's Library and Index Medicusirnlung5_small_small.gif (4598 bytes)  An important starting point for locating images in the history of biomedicine is the National Library of Medicine's Images from the History of Medicine collection, accessible from the bibliography of this site. 

The assignment asks you to construct your own understanding of the cultural and scientific meaning and significance of the polio vaccine.  We recommend that you preview the assignments before entering the Research Archives. 

Before you begin:

While we encourage you to explore all the materials we have gathered here, we also suggest that you preview the entire Wonder Drug section before beginning your study of the research archives and plan your work time accordingly.  You may wish to print out copies of the photos, documents, or other items you plan to write about for your short essay; this way you will have them on hand and will be able to work on your assignments even if technical difficulties prevent you from accessing the materials on-line.

Please note that due to constraints imposed by the condition of the originals, some documents on this section of the site have been reproduced as image files.   All New York Times articles fall into this category.  These articles will be slower to load and may have a lower print quality than the text files on this site.