Polioforever's Blog

Patenting the Sun

Book review, excerpts and critique of Patenting the Sun by Jane S. Smith, 1990, Wm Morrow Co./Doubleday (Anchor Books)

From the beginning:

“A buried fear is hard to resurrect. To many people today, paralytic poliomyelitis seems as distant as leprosy, as remote a danger as the bubonic plague. Mention the word ‘polio’ to people born after 1955 and you often draw a blank… Mention polio to someone born before that crucial year of 1955 –and especially in the twenty years before– and you get a quick, startled glance of recognition…
   “Children were taught to be afraid of polio, to regard it as a fierce monster that lurked in the damp hollows of their experience… Polio will get you. It will creep in your window at night and you’ll never get up in the morning… [p19]
   “Some time in the early months of 1954, when I was midway through first grade at P.S. 61 in New York City, my parents signed a form in which they requested that I be allowed to participate in the testing of a new vaccine that might prove effective against poliomyelitis…
   “The worst polio epidemic in history had been in the summer of 1952, only eighteen months before, with almost sixty thousand cases reported in the United States. It’s no surprise that my parents, like millions of others, gratefully volunteered their child as a test subject for Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, disregarding any possible dangers in their desperate eagerness for protection. In all the literature that surrounded the effort, the word ‘permission’ was never used. Neither were ‘volunteer’, ‘experimental’, or ‘test’. Parents had to ‘request’ to ‘participate’ in a ‘trial’. It didn’t matter. Everybody knew what was meant, and they couldn’t wait to volunteer…
   “I remember the exciting sense that we were doing something brave and important… I remember waiting in the hall outside the third-floor schoolroom where the shots were given… The line moved forward, a doctor stuck a needle in my arm, my friend Nikki’s mother gave me a lollipop, and I returned to my classroom…  A week later I was back… and four weeks after that I was back again. After the third injection, I received a large souvenir button and a wallet-size card, both of which proudly announced “I Was a Polio Pioneer”. Summer came, the school year ended and I survived another polio season without injury. The following spring, my parents were informed that I had received placebo, not vaccine, and I had to go through the whole seies of shots again. [p22]
   “The school I attended..[was] conveniently close to both the municipal offices of lower Manhattan and the national media headquarters of Midtown. As a result, it received more than its share of attention during the days of the vaccination clinics. It was only much later that I learned about the newsreel cameras that had been there, or of the ceremonial visits from Mr. Basil O’Connor.. and Dr. Leona Baumgartner…  Lillian Ross wrote about my class in the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’…  I remember the lollipop and the button… I remember wondering if I had gotten the ‘real stuff’ or the sugar water, but I didn’t wonder about it very much. In fact, I rarely thought of polio at all. Unlike so many others, I had no direct contact with polio, no friends or relatives who were paralyzed. To me it was all very distant…  [p23]
   “The vaccination program of 1954, which I accepted so unquestioningly at the time, had begun to loom in my imagination as one of those vast public events that everyone remembers but nobody knows very much about. Whose idea had it been? Who was in charge? Who had paid for it? Who approved? Who volunteered? Why had they all done it? And once it was done, and the Salk vaccine was shown to be successful, how had that changed people’s expectations about how things would happen in the future?
   “This book is an attempt to answer those questions…  Ultimately it is about the children of the 1950s –the parents and leaders of today– who were the first to benefit from the new vaccine, and who grew up in what may well be the healthiest generation the world will ever know. [p24]
   “..Polio was the last of the great childhood plagues…  In an age when AIDS, asbestos, radon, toxic waste, and a host of other biological and environmental threats cloud our consciousness, forming a dark haze of concern through which we filter all our hopes, plans, and expectations, the reminder of conquered plagues, including polio, gives us courage. [p25]
   “I was a Polio Pioneer. I led the vanguard of mass immunization. I grew up in the era of radiant good health and planned my family under the assumption that my children would all survive. Let us all imagine for the moment that AIDS is spreading –as it is– and that the available treatments are all designed to slow the progress of the disease, not to protect against its arrivial. Immunization would be preferable to containment, but the only way to immunize against viral disease is to take  a vaccine before you’re exposed. To know if the vaccine works you have to test it on a population that has not yet encountered a natural infection, wait for that encounter to occur, and then monitor the test subjects until symptoms of the disease would begin to manifest themselves, which for AIDS means several years.
   “Ultimately, this means children. I have a daughter… I don’t know if she’ll ever reach [her] goals, but I want her to live long enough to have the chance. In two years, she’ll be the same age I was when my parents requested..the Salk polio vaccine. What will I do, I wonder, if she comes home one day with a note from school: “Scientists..have developed a vaccine that may give lasting immunity to the viruses that cause AIDS. A nationwide field trial is being planned, and children in your area have been selected to..have the opportunity to take part…” Do I believe them? Should I sign the paper? Would you?” [p26]
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Patenting The Sun is Jane Smith’s effort at reglorifying vaccination. It was destined (designed) to become an instant ‘classic’ for not only collating and restating the textbook accounts of polio history but for sundry embellishments of myth and misdirection. She writes “I remember wondering if I had gotten the ‘real stuff’ or the sugar water” but no one in the polio vaccine trials got “sugar water”.  On page 386, Smith added that “After May 1955, there have been no cases of poliomyelitis associated with the Salk vaccine” but statistical evidence of startling increases among the newly vaccinated stands to negate this claim– the name and pathology of ‘polio’ was reframed to virtually eliminate its occurrance on the record. A reflection of “provocation” polio cases (caused by vaccine) and a diminishing record of pre-vaccine cases ending in death is here: http://www.nccn.net/~wwithin/polio2.htm
    Smith advances toward her conclusions on the next page, “Still best known for the polio vaccine that he developed, Salk is one of a very small company of people whose very names evoke instant and unquestioning trust… [W]hen New York deal maker Morton Davis sought private financing for a new AIDS vaccine company built around Dr. Salk’s work, money rained down from the heavens.” [p387]  “…while we can’t turn to the records of polio for solutions to AIDS or any other ailment lurking in the viral or microbial jungle, we can look to the past to understand why we react the way we do to the problems of the present.” [p389]  “Today, for the first time in human history, there exists a generation of adults that has never experienced epidemic disease… Whether the disease is polio, diphtheria, or..other ailments that once made childhood such a perilous time, they want a cure that is 100 percent safe… The Salk vaccine was the only one of the many medical discoveries that made the children of the 1940s and 1950s a uniquely healthy generation, shielded from the diseases that had threatened their parents…” [p390]  “Raised with the conviction that science could find a cure for any ills to which the body might be prey, many of today’s adults have retained what may be highly unrealistic assumptions about what it means to be healthy –assumptions that will continue to tax the medical system with possibly unrealizable demands until well into the next century.” [p391]
*
The “uniquely healthy generation” of baby boomers Smith writes about, with “unrealistic assumptions” about health, is often addressed in other works about current public medicine, seemingly to fulfill her assessment of demandingness. Author Stephen S. Hall identifies boomers as the generation that “wants to live forever”, quoting the philosopher Leon Kass, Hall writes that Kass “argued forcefully against any biomedical attempts to extend the human life span…Indeed, the desire to live longer..was yet another form of cultural decay”. Kass himself wrote “It is probably no accident that it is a generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the meaninglessness of life that embarks on its indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure the emptiness of life by extending it.” [Merchants of Immortality, pp187-188] While boomers can hardly be collectivized by these statements, Hall is probably more correct in identifying the boomers as demand-driven market creators, who buy into the promises and expectations of high dollar research which portrays technological miracles in the face of escalating chronic diseases and cancer, today’s epidemics.
Adding to Smith’s effort to re-miracle-ize vaccination, Patenting the Sun’s rich detail also works at framing the propaganda to rebury old arguments, such as this brief  passage on crank letters:
By the time that Thomas Francis agreed to direct the field-trial evaluation, Jonas Salk was more than happy to relinquish control and return to what he still insisted were the most urgent questions of vaccine formulation. Unfortunately, the forces of disruption continued to camp outside his door. Often he had to stop all work to give detailed tours of his facilities to representatives of manufacturers, visitors from the NIH’s Laboratory of Biologics Control, or, worst of all, reporters…
   “Then there was the mail, which had started to mount as soon as features on the new vaccine began to appear in popular magazines. Old acquaintances wrote…[f]ormer staff members wrote…[r]elatives asked for help… A member of the air force wrote about the cure for polio to be found in ‘the juice of the gourd’. One man sent several letters explaining how polio could be prevented by eating ‘slightly radioactive’ breakfast cereal, which would destroy the virus as it entered the body; another intrepid crackpot had worked out elaborate equations showing that polio incidence was tied to levels of nuclear radiation and could be predicted by studying the volume of beans harvested each spring in the Midwest. A former vitamin salesman in Coral Gables, Florida, who had appointed himself president, corresponding secretary, and general messiah of an organization he called Polio Prevention Inc., sent inflammatory pamphlets designed to reveal, among other things, that the National Foundation was in league with the cola manufacturers to increase polio incidence by encouraging malnutrition. Most of these letters received individual answers, some of them..dictated personally by Salk.” [pp240-241]
–the “intrepid crackpot” bean counter is not to be missed as a possibly astute observer of nuclear fallout, and neither the cola conspiracy for its basis in fact from data generated in the 1930s and ’40s.
   Smith’s own text adds unwitting substance to the empirical alignment of proofs of these factors as causes of polio. Writing about the 1954 vaccine field trial, she notes “Despite the high epidemic toll of recent years, the field-trial planners had to prepare for the possibility of as few as ten thousand cases in the entire United States, as had happened as recently as 1947. To be fairly confident that they would run into an epidemic somewhere, they had to go to areas all around the country, since no one could predict with any certainty where epidemics would appear…[Gabriel] Stickle and his associates decided that areas that had a high incidence of polio in a given year tended to continue to have a higher than average incidence for the following two or three years…On the basis of that theory..the [NFIP] foundation’s Statistical Services Division listed all counties in the United States with high incidence of polio in 1952 and 1953, then eliminated counties with populations so small that there was no local health department..” [pp231-232] At the very bottom of the front page blog [They Don’t Call It Polio Anymore..] is a timeline graph intended as a DDT/polio correspondence which has been reframed as a better illustration of fallout and polio. In 1947, there were no atomic explosions recorded anywhere –it was the only ‘post-atomic’ year to yield the least number of polio cases before the vaccine went public in ’55. Salk IPV trial planners could not be sure the case level wouldn’t also drop in 1954 because there were no domestic A-bomb blasts scheduled in that year– indeed, polio watchers who knew the radiation cause could have anticipated a drop in cases over the levels from 51-53 when Nevada testing sent polio case numbers soaring. Fresh fallout in 1954 had to travel and drift from the Marshall Islands, potentially drifting in an unpredictable pattern of dilute but unknown concentrations.  Systematic tracking of fallout was nearly absent before 1949– who can say that bean crops were less an indicator in that first decade! Weather control by means of storm generation, which occurred in conjunction with atmospheric nuke tests, is likely to have been intentional effort at bringing down the fallout to hide the intensity of U.S. atomic activity from other nations capable of monitoring the atmosphere for radioactivity. The stimulus to commercial crops from radioactive irrigation was a proven boon to agriculture before WWI and led the Standard Chemical Company to produce “radium fertilizer” for sale to farmers (see the x-ray page for a radium timeline and links). The bean counter was on to something.
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