History Department
History Department

Bill Gates reviews Professor David Oshinsky’s Pulitizer Prize-winning book on polio

Fri, June 24, 2011
Bill Gates writes review on David Oshinsky's book on polio
Bill Gates writes review on David Oshinsky's book on polio

Read what Gates learned and why he's a "fan of David Oshinsky’s insightful book, Polio: An American Story."

From The Gates Notes:
Talk to anyone old enough to remember polio epidemics in the U.S., and you will see the fear in their eyes as they talk about those terrible and unsettling times. For decades, no one knew why thousands of children would suddenly be stricken – usually in midsummer – with many dying or left permanently paralyzed.

Today, most of us in the U.S. don’t even think about polio. But if you go to villages in India’s Bihar Province or the northern states of Nigeria, or the southern part of Afghanistan, you will see that very same fear in the eyes of parents who worry that their child might be next.

I’m a dogged advocate for polio eradication and have written about it in many other articles on the Gates Notes. We are very close to ridding the world of this terrible disease once and for all. It will take focus and commitment to get it done, but I am confident we can.

Prof. David Oshinsky's Pulitizer Prize-winning book, Polio: An American StoryThat’s why I’m a fan of David Oshinsky’s insightful book, Polio: An American Story. (I’m not alone here, as it received the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2006.) It is a fascinating account of the search for a vaccine to stop the polio epidemics that swept the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, and the remarkable efforts that led to its successful eradication from the U.S. and most other countries.

Reading Oshinsky’s book a few years ago broadened my appreciation of the challenges associated with global health issues and influenced the decision that Melinda and I made to make polio eradication the top priority of the foundation, as well as my own personal priority.

Oshinsky retraces the steps of researchers trying to puzzle together how to create an effective vaccine. He’s a gifted storyteller who makes complex scientific subjects easy to understand and also captures the mood of a country terrorized by an invisible and little-understood disease. He describes in meticulous but never-boring detail the people and politics associated with one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history.

I found it interesting that the first recorded polio epidemic in the U.S. didn’t occur until 1894, in rural Vermont. By 1908, Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese researcher who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the different human blood types, isolated the poliovirus by injecting monkeys with an emulsion from the spinal cord of a boy who had just died of polio. It was one of several important breakthroughs in the early 20th century battle against killer infectious diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and syphilis.

Read the rest of this story on The Gates Notes...

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