Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams

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Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Reviewed by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Summary: Thrilling tale of man's war against polio.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-1137299758

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Gareth Williams, author of Angel of Death, turns his focus from the history of the plague to that of polio in Paralysed with Fear. From the first report of a case in 1700-Strasbourg, right through to polio in the present day, he traces polio’s progression past age limits, socioeconomic boundaries and geographical borders. Almost more intriguing, though, is the insight we receive to the cut-throat competition between scientists who sought to use polio as a means for making history.

Once known as the crippler, polio often caused the dreaded effect of paralysis by entering the spinal cord. It is this particular effect that gave the polio disease its full name: poliomyelitis, inflammation of the grey matter of the spinal cord. Williams' inclusion of a number of personal accounts with the virus gives the reader a first-hand account of the anguish experienced by patients moving from hospital to hospital, and children having to be trapped in life-saving, but nevertheless intimidating, iron lungs, as paralysis spread upstream, and eventually compromised function of the diaphragm. It might be the rapid removal of bodily function that contributed to the frantic mission of eliminating polio, despite the fact that there were bigger contemporary killers, such as measles and tuberculosis.

Another big agent creating the sense of urgency that seized the world in the fifties, particularly in the United States, was the energetic campaign conducted against polio, buttressed by the fact that a victim of the disease, Franklin D Roosevelt, was Head of State. But one is made to understand that, in spite of awareness of the damage done by polio, the prospective rewards of honour and timelessness were greater incentives for the research conducted, rather than empathy and goodwill alone. Landsteiner, Koprowski, Retan, Nurse Kenny, and many more reputable scientists and convincing charlatans supplied answers, unwaveringly, to the questions of aetiology and prevention of polio. Soon enough, all researchers sought support from large US bodies: the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the Rockefeller Institute were key players.

It is in part the perceived supremacy of US R&D that led to the lack of attention paid to Scandinavian research that would have helped the world arrive at a more concrete explanation of polio transmission much sooner. Some worryingly biased researchers would publish results from experiments which lacked appropriate controls. One scientist would, using microscopy, spot something in polio sufferers that would later be found to be nothing but fat droplets; another would argue that it was toxins that caused polio. Near-consensus had been reached on the idea that polio, whatever it might be, had to infect an individual through the nose, as it affected the central nervous system, though early Swedish research had hinted at the correct definition of polio’s mode of migration: via the faecal-oral route. Other individuals wouldn’t even bother with empiricism, with some entirely absurd claims, such as the following: ...sugar had a chemical formula and must therefore be classified as a drug. Jonas Salk, now accredited for having made the first polio vaccine, was briefly in the shadow of his professional nemesis, Albert Sabin. Whilst the former injected a vaccine with completely inactivated viruses, Sabin vociferously argued for inclusion of a weakened, an attenuated, polio virus, which was to be ingested.

All in all, the story of the race towards answers for what causes infantile paralysis, and what might cure it, demonstrates the weight of the contemporary world of ideas, along with the significance of technological developments. It was only through the perfection of electron microscopy that the scientific community could definitively reject the hypotheses of polio being caused by bacteria, having an Inuit phenotype, being deficient of vitamin C, or having high blood sugar! Williams’ outline of the growth of the field of genetics culminates in one of its results: the ability to define precisely polio’s composition, and the code needed for synthesis of this virus. Paralysed with Fear also tracks the development of the iron lung from the pulmotor, initially used for miners. Creative treatments for (certain aspects of) polio are described: hydrotherapy, the Bradford brace and Retan’s cerebrospinal fluid washouts are some of many.

The polio tale is a seriously involved one, and Williams does an excellent job in describing ambitious, vain and wrongheaded scientists; said scientists’ feuds; intellectually attractive ideas which often [outlived] their credibility; researchers who fell out of, then returned to, favour; horrible treatment trial fiascos; and FDR's fate, which served as quite the tool for bringing about what may be the biggest fundraising campaign of all time.

The book ends, with its author expressing what he had hoped when he started this project: that on its completion, the end of polio's regime might be drawing near. With the less-than-smooth history of polio eradication, and the efficient spread of pure lies, one comes to realise just how difficult it will be to achieve this goal. And yet, bearing in mind just how incredible the history of polio is, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility that polio will suffer the same fate as smallpox.

For a criticism of present-day misconduct in science, do read Ben Goldacre's critically acclaimed Bad Science.

Buy Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Paralysed with Fear by Gareth Williams at Amazon.com.


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