News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 22, 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning author visits ISU

Dr. David Oshinsky speaks about polio’s place in U.S. history

By Crystal Garcia

TERRE HAUTE — Growing up in the late 1940s in New York, David Oshinsky is old enough to remember how scary polio used to be.

“Every summer, polio would come like the plague,” he said. “ … Everybody was at risk and that meant that you couldn’t go swimming in swimming pools, you couldn’t go to the movies, you couldn’t be in crowds, you couldn’t make new friends. Everybody was always really worried that polio was going to strike them.”

Oshinsky, a professor of American history at University of Texas at Austin, spoke to about 50 people Thursday afternoon in Indiana State University’s Cunningham Memorial Library. He spoke about his book, “Polio: An American Story,” which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for a distinguished book on the history of the United States.

Co-sponsored by the library and Blumberg Center, Oshinsky’s presentation was one of the events for Disability Awareness Month.

Poliomyelitis, known as polio, enters through the mouth and is very contagious. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea. In some cases, paralysis occurs, or death.

One of the biggest things Oshinsky said he learned from writing this book was how the March of Dimes organization revolutionized philanthropies and medical research.

When it came to fundraising, March of Dime officials figured out that small donations from a lot of people were better than big donations from a few people. In this way, more people get involved.

“No one is too poor to give a dime to help a kid walk again,” Oshinsky said.

The March of Dimes also was the first organization to use poster children and celebrity endorsements.

Organizations today mirror many things the March of Dimes started, such as walks for a cause.

On the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the organization would host the “Mothers March on Polio.” Oshinsky remembered walking door to door with his mother to collect donations to fight polio.

He said he remembered watching his mother dump out a Mason jar filled with money into a pile of more money at the March of Dimes center.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised,” he said. “It was the greatest fundraiser in the history of charitable giving.”

Except for the American Red Cross, the March of Dimes raised more money than all the other organizations of the time put together.

Much of the money raised was used for medical research, which led to the development of vaccines to rid the Western Hemisphere of polio.

Finding that vaccine, however, didn’t come without costs.

Several million children were used to test the vaccine in 1954 in what Oshinsky called “the biggest public health experiment in American history.”

Tests were done through the public schools and Oshinsky was one of the subjects, he said.

“My mother lined me up for this experiment not knowing whether the vaccine worked, whether the vaccine was safe, but the fear of polio was so extraordinary that parents were pushing their kids to the front of the line,” Oshinsky said.

After about a year of sorting through the test results, it was confirmed the vaccine was safe, effective and potent.

Oshinsky was in school when the announcement was made, he said.

“When that announcement was made, they let us out of school, church bells tolled, factory whistles went off,” Oshinsky said. “It was as if a war had ended and in fact a war had ended, it was the war against polio.”

By the early 1960s, polio was gone in the United States and the Western Hemisphere. There is still polio in some parts of Africa and Asia.

“To me the great beauty of the polio crusade was that it was completely voluntary, the government played virtually no role,” Oshinsky told the crowd. “America gave its time, its money and indeed gave its children to wipe this disease off the face of the Western Hemisphere.”

Could this happen today with other disease plaguing society, such as cancer or HIV?

Millions of Americans donated their time and money to the polio crusade, but Oshinsky said things are different now.

“I think the voluntary efforts of the 1950s sort of mirrored a very special time in our history and I think we’ve been unable to recreate that in recent years,” he said.

Marlene Lu, the program’s co-coordinator, heard about Oshinsky through a friend who is a polio survivor.

“It’s an honor to have a Pulitzer author … you don’t get to meet them very much and you take advantage of any chance you can,” Lu said.

She said she was pleased with the program and the turnout for the event to raise awareness for disabilities.

“Whatever we can do, there shouldn’t have to be a month where it’s campaign awareness for disabilities, but if we can get just even a few words out there in whatever way, shape or form,” she said. “When you think about polio and the way he was talking about it, it was the AIDS of the 50s, and perhaps some of the attributes of the whole eradication of polio can be used for other diseases.”

Crystal Garcia can be reached at (812) 231-4271 or