05:18am Saturday 11 July 2020

Polio, Panic and the Public's Health

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In the first half of the 20th century, parents feared hot summers, crowded beaches and swimming pools, associating them with polio’s annual threat to children’s health. A child’s simple sore throat and stiff neck, sometimes precursive signs of polio, might force parents to confront terrifying visions of paralysis and confinement to an iron lung.

David Oshinsky, Phl.D.

By the 1940s and 1950s, polio epidemics in the United States were tragic annual summer events, sometimes resulting in 2,000 or more deaths a year. Against this backdrop of an almost universal sense of helpless panic, rivals Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin raced to develop an effective vaccine.

Pulitzer prize winning historian David Oshinsky, Ph.D., will tell their story, and of the impact the polio experience had on public health, research and funding, when he delivers the Davenport Lecture on Sunday, April 12. His talk is entitled “Polio: a look back at America’s most successful public health crusade.”

Introductory comments will be given by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.

Dr. Oshinsky’s talk is free and open to the public, and takes place at 3 p.m. in the multi-purpose room, Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch, 343 South 5th Avenue. For directions or more information, call 734-647-6914.

Dr. Oshinsky is a professor of history at New York University and directs the Division of Medical Humanities at the NYU School of Medicine.

His books include A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; and Worse Than Slavery, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for its distinguished contribution to human rights. His most recent book, Polio: An American Story, won the Pulitzer Prize for History, among other awards, and influenced Bill Gates to make polio eradication the top priority of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2009, PBS aired The Polio Crusade, a documentary based on his book.

This year’s Davenport Lecture on polio coincides with the 60th anniversary of the announcement, April 12, 1955 at the University of Michigan, that Salk’s polio vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.”

The Davenport lectureship is named for the late Horace W. Davenport, Ph.D., who died in August 2005 at age 92. He was chair of the U-M Department of Physiology for 22 years, from 1956 to 1978. Davenport was one of the world’s preeminent gastric physiologists. His landmark studies led to the discovery of the stomach’s barrier to injury. After retiring from active faculty status in 1983, Davenport pursued his longtime interest in the history of physiology and medicine, publishing numerous books and articles including Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (University of Michigan Press, 1999).

Related link:

Poliomyelitis and the Salk Vaccine: A guide to resources in the Bentley Historical Library

Media Contact: Mary Beth Reilly 734-764-2220

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