A straightforward, fact-filled account of the disease that terrified American parents from World War I until it was brought under control in the 1950s, “A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America” puts the emphasis on epidemiology, science and collective effort, with an occasional nod toward the mythic potency that made polio an imaginative bugbear for baby boomers and their parents. Though competently mounted, pic’s prosaic approach makes it more suited to pubcasting than to theatrical playoff, which it is receiving in New York City starting this week.
While polio has been around worldwide for millennia, pic shows that it gained notoriety as an American health menace with an outbreak in the summer of 1916. Scientists didn’t understand its causes, but the consensus was that it came from the fetid conditions of slums, which led some in the Northeast to shun New York and its fleeing inhabitants. Five summers later, that myth was contradicted when the disease claimed its most famous American: Franklin D. Roosevelt, then 39, fell ill while vacationing in coastal Maine.
Without doubt, Roosevelt’s affliction was a boon to those combating the disease. He also charged his law partner, Basil O’Connor, with mounting a public fundraising counteroffensive; one result was the March of Dimes, the biggest charity drive in history.
Still, it was nearly two decades between the first, disastrous attempts at a vaccine in the mid-’30s and the arrival of Jonas Salk’s serum, which was tested on 1.8 million children in 1954 and declared a success the next spring. Less well known but likewise important at this stage, Salk’s competitor Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine that was introduced in 1961. The personal vying and animosity between the two scientists documented here is fascinating, as are reminders that the U.S. government allowed their various trials to proceed without official oversight.
Pic uses interviews with survivors of the disease to record what is now fading from memory, the high human costs measured in crutches, metal leg braces, wheezing iron lungs and recollections of grim-faced doctors and panicked parents. This chronicle concludes with the reminder that, though polio has been banished from the developed West, it still plagues the Third World.