Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Wilson, Daniel J. (2005). Living With Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 300 pgs. Cloth 0-226-90103-3. $29.00.

Reviewed by Steven Noll, University of Florida

In 2005, the 50th anniversary of the development of the Salk polio vaccine was a cause for both celebration and reflection. Ceremonies, both large and small, were held around the United States commemorating this public health breakthrough which conquered not only the poliomyelitis virus but also the fear it caused throughout the country, especially in the middle third of the 20th century. A spate of books was published to mark the occasion, most describing the effects of the disease/disability on American society and efforts of doctors and public health officials to eradicate it (Kluger, 2004; Offit, 2005, Oshinsky, 2005; Shell, 2005). Daniel Wilson's fine book, while obviously part of that publishing trend, differs from those works in its focus, its tone, and its conclusions. Wilson's work centers on the life stories of polio survivors and their experiences with the disease. A "polio" himself (Wilson would summarily reject the term "polio victim"), Wilson uses the complicated relationship of himself and others with polio to shed light on notions of disability, gender roles, and the helping professions in mid-20th century America. While Wilson draws conclusions about polio and American society, this book deals mainly with individuals–people struggling to survive and maintain a "normal" life after contracting the polio virus.

Wilson arranges this book chronologically, though not in the traditional historical sense. Instead of describing polio and its relationship to American society, he examines how the disease affects individual people. Starting with the initial diagnosis, he moves through the stages that polio survivors experienced as they struggled with the disease during the course of their lives. From the initial acute, active stage of the virus, he takes readers through hospital rehabilitation, life in the polio wards, the long journey to re-integration with home, family, education, occupation, and community, and the final cruelly ironic re-occurrence of the disease in the form of post-polio syndrome, often manifested years after the acute stage has run its course. Using the memoirs, letters and oral histories of almost one hundred polios, Wilson paints a realistic picture of the great epidemic as seen (and lived) from the inside. This is not the story of medical breakthroughs, government programs, and the infightings of fundraisers and bureaucrats. By focusing on polio survivors and their families, Wilson lets the reader see the personal toll the disease took, and the daily struggles, triumphs, and failures that marked living with polio. Set against a canvas of a rapidly changing American social scene, especially in light of the subtle psychological changes wrought by the Cold War, this story of polio as told by those with the disease itself offers a fine counterpoint to the more widely known story of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (and its fundraising arm the March of Dimes) and the epic struggle between advocates of killed and live virus to rapidly develop a vaccine for the disease. Even the story of Franklin Roosevelt and his complex relationship to the disease plays only a small part in Wilson's story. By emphasizing the personal experiences of polios, Wilson lets the reader experience the disease firsthand. The agony of hot packs, the fear of impending surgery, the joy of going back to work or school–these are not abstract concepts but daily struggles. The impact of the book comes from these stories themselves. When a polio remembers "it was very difficult to be the only child in the school with a disability" or "it was almost like the other children were delighted to have this new curiosity in their midst" (p. 183), the reader immediately gets a sense of how the polio virus affected Americans personally.

This is not simply a compendium of reminiscences about growing up and living with polio, however. Wilson places these life stories clearly in the context of mid-20th century American history and culture. He is particularly good at showing the importance of shared experiences in the lives of polio survivors. What Wilson call "polio communities" (p. 100) were crucial in providing support within a culture where "cripples" were still outcasts. Wilson is at his best, however, describing the internalization of the need to see polio as something to be overcome. Polio survivors worked hard to avoid the label of cripple; to avoid sinking into dependency; to show that they were not damaged goods. This tied in with societal notions of normality that narrowed the possibilities of what was "acceptable" during the early Cold War. Though never explicitly stated, Wilson expresses the belief that polio was a debilitating viral disease that became a partially socially constructed disability.

This is an important book. It provides a counterpoint to other works that focus on public policy and medical breakthroughs. It is hindered somewhat by the lack of diverse polio life stories (although, to his credit, this is a problem that Wilson himself identifies). The question of how race and class affect the lives of persons with polio is only briefly touched upon. But these are minor complaints with a book that adds much to our understanding of the human dimension of epidemic polio in the middle of the last century.


Kluger, Jeffrey. (2004). Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. New York: Putnam.

Offit, Paul. (2005). The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis New Haven: Yale University Press.

Oshinsky, David M. (2005). Polio, An American Story: The Disease that Mobilized the Nation against the Twentieth-Century's Most Feared Disease. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shell, Mark. (2005). Polio and its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Copyright (c) 2006 Steven Noll

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