- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

In the summer of 1952 some 52,000 American children went to bed with what was thought to be a cold, only to awaken feverish, chilled, and with weakness in the limbs. Called to bedside, doctors learned to ask each young patient to raise his head and look at his belly button. A youngster who could not raise his head had almost certainly contracted the most dreaded of childhood diseases, infantile paralysis, known as polio.

At the center of the search for a cure was Jonas Salk, whose research into a possible vaccine was financed by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as the March of Dimes. His search for an effective vaccine against polio is now described in SplendidSolution:JonasSalkandtheConquestofPolio (Putnam, $25.95, 373 pages) by Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer at Time magazine.

Salk was born in New York City in 1914; his father was a garment worker, his mother a recent immigrant from Russia. After flirting with the idea of becoming a rabbi, Salk studied science and medicine at the City College of New York and New York University. He spent the World War II years at the University of Michigan, attempting to develop a flu vaccine. He made a sufficient impression at Michigan that after the war he was put in charge of his own laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh to work on polio.

At Pittsburgh, Salk demonstrated that the polio virus could be divided into three major types, a key step in the development of a vaccine. But what form of vaccine? Salk was convinced that a child’s immune system could be stimulated by a killed virus. Other scientists, led by Albert Sabin, believed that only a vaccine made with weakened live virus would produce long-term immunity.

In 1952 Salk was authorized to begin human testing of his vaccine, and he was confident enough to begin the tests by inoculating his own family and selected members of his staff. The U.S. government then approved a trial involving 1.8 million children, and the vaccine was proved to be effective.

The Sabin vaccine also was found to be effective against polio, and it was popular for a time because it could be administered via a sugar cube rather than by injection. Over the years, however, it had a higher rate of failure than did Salk’s vaccine. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control halted the use of Sabin’s live-virus vaccine altogether.

As a person, Salk appears to have been an acquired taste. Although Mr. Kluger makes extensive use of family interviews, he adds, “Salk may have been adored by the parents of children whose lives and legs had been saved by his vaccine, but the scientists in whose circles he worked were far less charmed. None of them had cared for his appearances on radio and, ultimately, television … . Such behavior, they felt, was showmanship at its shabbiest.” Nevertheless, by 1961 the number of polio cases in the United States had fallen by 98 percent, to about 1,000 cases per year. Today polio is almost unknown in this country.

Mr. Kluger has provided a highly readable account, not only of Jonas Salk’s life but also of the long and ultimately successful fight against one of the world’s dread diseases.

In 1939 Rhode Island finally erected a statue to its founder, Roger Williams, in Providence. Perhaps this action was precipitated by an apology, in 1936, from the Massachusetts legislature for having banished Williams from Massachusetts Bay Colony three centuries earlier. Edwin S. Gaustad’s minibiography, RogerWilliams (Oxford, $17.95, 143 pages), seeks to rectify the widespread amnesia that surrounds this maverick founder of both our smallest state and the Baptist Church in America.

Roger Williams studied for the ministry at Cambridge University but subsequently left the Church of England and, in 1630, emigrated to Massachusetts. He tried living first among the Puritans and then among the Pilgrims, but fell out with both groups over a variety of issues. “Williams was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion to do a very un-Christian deed: namely, depriving the Indians of their own property without due compensation or negotiation.” He had spent some time with the Indians in Plymouth, learned some of their languages, and concluded that “they too had rights.” In fact, he was to publish a popular treatise on the Indians’ language and culture, and over the years the colonists often called on him to negotiate with the Indians.

When Massachusetts threw Williams out, he wandered in the wilderness in the bitter cold for 14 weeks before the Indians took him in. In 1636 he bought some land from the Indians 40 miles southwest of Boston, and began the settlement he called Providence, in which he determined upon “complete separation from the Church of England and full separation of civil power from spiritual activity.” In 1638 he helped organize the first Baptist church in America, but he left the church after a few months because, he said, his New Testament studies (he read Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) had persuaded him that “the true church must await the return of Christ to the earth.” But the church continued without him, and his colony became “if not an inspiration, at least a haven for those seeking refuge from persecution and repression.”

Mr. Gaustad details the fractious settlers’ “unending bickering and contending with each other” in Rhode Island. After the beheading of Charles I in 1643, Williams, who was acquainted with many of the leaders of the Protectorate, including Oliver Cromwell, obtained his charter from Parliament for “Providence Plantations.” Conflict between the “mainlanders” in Providence and Warwick and the “islanders” in Portsmouth and Newport continued, however. It was not until 1663 that a charter affirming Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as an entity “with a full liberty in religious concernments” was issued by King Charles II. This royal charter became the model for religious freedom in many other colonies. (Massachusetts, however, did not sever the last ties between church and state until 1833.)

To some extent this little book reflects how hard it is for a scholar like Mr. Gaustad, a professor emeritus of history and religion at the University of California at Riverside, to write for a more general audience without becoming simplistic. (Or maybe it was his editor who thought it necessary to explain that Cambridge is “one of England’s two venerable universities” and that to excommunicate a person means “eject him or her from the church”?) Nonetheless, the author has made the case for why Roger Williams deserves to be better remembered in America today.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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