Polio & Pulitzer

Polio & Pulitzer

Thomas Francis Jr. and the University of Michigan School of Public Health figure prominently in this year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history, Polio: An American Story, by David M.Oshinsky, who teaches history at the University of Texas. To research the book, Oshinsky spent days poring over SPH records at the Bentley Historical Library and visiting the sites in Ann Arbor where Francis oversaw his unprecedented field trials for the Salk vaccine.

As Oshinsky tells it, Francis agreed to conduct the trials only after the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis agreed to meet a long and exacting set of conditions: “The foundation must give him complete freedom to run the Evaluation Center. Done. It must cover all physical improvements, salaries, supplies, and additional costs. Done. It must accept his timetable for analyzing and releasing the trial results. Done. It must continue to support his virus research at Michigan, no matter how these results turned out. Done. Most important, it must accept his design for the trials.” To this day, notes Oshinsky, the Salk vaccine trials of 1954—which involved almost two million children nationwide—“hold a special, almost reverential place in the annals of American medicine.”

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