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The Moth in the Iron Lung: A Biography of Polio

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A fascinating account of the world’s most famous disease—polio— told as you have never heard it before. Epidemics of paralysis began to rage in the early 1900s, seemingly out of nowhere. Doctors, parents, and health officials were at a loss to explain why this formerly unheard of disease began paralyzing so many children—usually starting in their legs, sometimes moving up A fascinating account of the world’s most famous disease—polio— told as you have never heard it before. Epidemics of paralysis began to rage in the early 1900s, seemingly out of nowhere. Doctors, parents, and health officials were at a loss to explain why this formerly unheard of disease began paralyzing so many children—usually starting in their legs, sometimes moving up through their abdomen and arms. For an unfortunate few, it could paralyze the muscles that allowed them to breathe. Why did this disease start to become such a horrible problem during the late 1800s? Why did it affect children more often than adults? Why was it originally called teething paralysis by mothers and their doctors? Why were animals so often paralyzed during the early epidemics when it was later discovered most animals could not become infected? The Moth in the Iron Lung is a fascinating biography of this horrible paralytic disease, where it came from, and why it disappeared in the 1950s. If you’ve never explored the polio story beyond the tales of crippled children and iron lungs, this book will be sure to surprise.


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A fascinating account of the world’s most famous disease—polio— told as you have never heard it before. Epidemics of paralysis began to rage in the early 1900s, seemingly out of nowhere. Doctors, parents, and health officials were at a loss to explain why this formerly unheard of disease began paralyzing so many children—usually starting in their legs, sometimes moving up A fascinating account of the world’s most famous disease—polio— told as you have never heard it before. Epidemics of paralysis began to rage in the early 1900s, seemingly out of nowhere. Doctors, parents, and health officials were at a loss to explain why this formerly unheard of disease began paralyzing so many children—usually starting in their legs, sometimes moving up through their abdomen and arms. For an unfortunate few, it could paralyze the muscles that allowed them to breathe. Why did this disease start to become such a horrible problem during the late 1800s? Why did it affect children more often than adults? Why was it originally called teething paralysis by mothers and their doctors? Why were animals so often paralyzed during the early epidemics when it was later discovered most animals could not become infected? The Moth in the Iron Lung is a fascinating biography of this horrible paralytic disease, where it came from, and why it disappeared in the 1950s. If you’ve never explored the polio story beyond the tales of crippled children and iron lungs, this book will be sure to surprise.

30 review for The Moth in the Iron Lung: A Biography of Polio

  1. 4 out of 5

    La Coccinelle

    The tale of polio that is told—to both children and medical students alike—does little to advance our understanding of not only what happened, but what might happen again. The account of heroic man persevering over a heartless Mother Nature needs to be corrected. Despite all the lab coats and microscopes, the March of Dimes and the Nobel prizes, the enemies were actually our own clever designs the whole time. After reading Crooked earlier this year, I was intrigued by what the author might ha The tale of polio that is told—to both children and medical students alike—does little to advance our understanding of not only what happened, but what might happen again. The account of heroic man persevering over a heartless Mother Nature needs to be corrected. Despite all the lab coats and microscopes, the March of Dimes and the Nobel prizes, the enemies were actually our own clever designs the whole time. After reading Crooked earlier this year, I was intrigued by what the author might have to say about polio, a disease that has helped to shape the direction of children's healthcare for decades. One of the arguments from people who are staunchly in favour of vaccines seems to boil down to an indignant wail of, "Do you want to see children in iron lungs again?" or, "The polio vaccine saved us all! Salk is the biggest hero who ever lived!" or simply, "What about polio?" Yes, what about polio? In this book, Mr. Maready takes on those questions and provides ample evidence—some of it once known but now forgotten—that polio was, for the most part, a man-made scourge. An appropriate subtitle for this book could also be, "A Biography of Modern Man's Hubris" because, for all of our technological might and good intentions, we really do keep repeating the same mistakes... and then throwing the blame (or the accolades) in the wrong direction. The poliovirus has probably been with us for the entire course of our evolution. It's an enterovirus, which is a group of pathogens that often make their home and multiply in our gut. Usually, enteroviruses are fairly mild; they might cause a slight illness, the sort of thing you probably wouldn't even bother your doctor about. For most of its history, the poliovirus was like this. It wasn't until the late 1800s that something changed, and what was once an innocuous enterovirus started paralyzing people (mostly children). Mr. Maready does not dispute that the poliovirus was causing the paralysis in many cases. But here's the thing: the poliovirus (and other enteroviruses) are fairly benign—unless they somehow gain access to the central nervous system. This book describes a few ways that could happen, and each one is a result of man trying to pull one over on Mother Nature: Pesticides: By the late 1800s, medicine was already full of metal-containing concoctions. If you were ill, the standard treatment was to purge the bowels. This was usually done with medicines made from mercury or arsenic. That was bad enough, but the real problem began in the 1890s when large-scale application of pesticides—containing arsenic and lead—began to be spread to combat such pests as the gypsy moth. This new pesticide stuck to everything, and the dangers were unknown at the time... and so people were eating this lead arsenate-laced produce, not knowing that they were damaging their guts. And that brings us to the first way that polio could enter the central nervous system: through a damaged gut. Mr. Maready points out that it's probably not coincidental that the paralysis seen in many polio cases would correspond to damage of the spinal cord right behind the intestines (especially in children, since their anatomy is slightly different; their spinal cord extends lower, relatively speaking, than it does in adults). Also of note: most cases of poliomyelitis paralysis did not affect sensory function. Why is this important? Because the nerves for sensory input are located on the back of the spinal cord. Only the nerves on the front—nestled against the intestines—affected motor control. It's probably also not coincidental that the largest polio epidemics—which affected children and adults, coincided with the heavy use of DDT. Once that pesticide fell out of favour, the epidemics also fell away... but there was another temporal association that would take all of the credit: the polio vaccine. (Mr. Maready points out that India still uses DDT, and is in fact the largest producer in the world today. India is also still struggling to eradicate "polio", despite ongoing vaccination. Coincidence?) Tonsillectomies: For many years, this was pretty much a rite of passage. This was an eye-opening section of the book. Apparently, mouth-breathing was associated with lower IQ, so tonsillectomies were routinely performed to make children smarter! In any case, once these started happening en masse, a new form of polio emerged: bulbar polio. This meant the paralysis was much higher up, often affecting the head, neck, and trunk. Could the open wounds of the tonsillectomies have provided an entry point for the poliovirus to the nervous system and the "bulb" (the medulla oblongata), which was only an inch or so away from the tonsils? The syringe: The advent of the hypodermic needle meant that drugs could suddenly be delivered rapidly into a person's system, bypassing the gut entirely. Unfortunately, puncturing the skin could also drive the pathogens on it deep into the tissue... giving the poliovirus another route to the nervous system. In some cases of polio, paralysis was contained to or began in one limb... which may have just been the unfortunate recipient of some sort of injection. Mr. Maready points out that this may be what we're seeing in these sporadic "polio-like" cases of paralysis that have been cropping up in children in the last few years. Since the poliovirus is not the only enterovirus that can cause paralysis if it reaches the nervous system, the theory is that "provocation polio" may be behind some of these cases... especially given the late-summer timing (which is often when some kids are getting their back-to-school shots). Scientists of the day were well aware of the dangers of tonsillectomies and injections with regard to polio, as evidenced by this article from The New York Times from 1952: Seek a doctor’s advice about nose and throat operations, inoculations and teeth extractions during the polio season. There are plenty of reasons to shake your head while reading this book. Mr. Maready shows us how our arrogance in the face of things we don't understand continues to be our downfall, and we continue to repeat our mistakes (he references the Zika outbreak of 2015, framing it as yet another example of our own hubris; this is covered in more detail in Crooked). Was the poliovirus responsible for the 20th century's polio outbreaks? Yes and no. In some cases, our own actions may have given an otherwise-innocuous virus a chance to wreak havoc in our bodies. In other cases, a different virus may have been to blame. In yet other cases, the symptoms may have been simply the result of toxicity from pesticides or metals. The change in diagnostic criteria for polio after the advent of the vaccine (requiring that the paralysis be there for 60 days rather than just 24 hours, as had been the case before) meant that the numbers of official polio victims suddenly dropped... making it look as though the vaccine was a miracle. On paper, it may have seemed that way. But there still would have been people suffering from paralysis, even if they were no longer counted as polio victims, and that paralysis had to come from somewhere. I was surprised that there was little mention of the Cutter incident (except in passing, and not by name). Perhaps Mr. Maready felt that this was outside the scope of the book, which focused mainly on the ways the virus could get into the nervous system, rather than the vaccine history. Still, for a book subtitled "A Biography of Polio", it wouldn't be unreasonable to see a more thorough explanation of this medical debacle. This is an easy-to-read book that offers a new—and very plausible—alternative to the accepted story about the rise and fall of polio. Will we continue to make the same mistakes, forging down the wrong path for political or financial reasons, doomed to repeat the lessons of polio forever? Or will we one day be brave enough to look at the evidence without bias and see where it actually takes us? Only time will tell... but if our repeated screw-ups throughout modern medicine's history are anything to go by, it won't be for some time yet.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Zuniga

    What an awesome historical retelling of the origins of “poliomyelitis” and the failed medical attempts to prevent and cure it. It felt like it had to be a creepy fictional thriller story, but knowing the amount of research that went into his retelling, it is chilling how accurate it is. I had goosebumps by the very end. A must-read for anyone who has already begun the descent down this rabbit hole, and an open-minded reading might just get you down the rabbit hole, too.

  3. 5 out of 5

    J Bishop

    Important read for getting an unvarnished, and likely much more correct than the widely promoted, propaganda laced representation of polio history. Compelling portrayal that makes an effort to canvass many data points that may weigh in to events for reader consideration.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Vini

    I would recommend this book to everyone willing to hear an honest approach to the reality of the cause of polio. Poliomyelitis, still prevalent today, can be avoided by carefully examining the use of pesticides and insecticides, as well as dangerous “medicines”. It’s ironic how the methods of preventing diseases of paralysis, were actually the cause to begin with. Maready is a fantastic author and I will be excited to read his other works.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Outstanding, informative, well-written book that tells an incredible story about the history of poliomyelitis, not to be confused with the poliovirus. Rather than just a bunch of facts stacked on top of each other the book is a series of short chapters that really do tell a story from a farm in Vermont to America's largest cities decades later. It's really a must-read for anyone curious about the topic of polio, it's causes, and it's "cures." I'm looking forward to picking up Maready's other boo Outstanding, informative, well-written book that tells an incredible story about the history of poliomyelitis, not to be confused with the poliovirus. Rather than just a bunch of facts stacked on top of each other the book is a series of short chapters that really do tell a story from a farm in Vermont to America's largest cities decades later. It's really a must-read for anyone curious about the topic of polio, it's causes, and it's "cures." I'm looking forward to picking up Maready's other book Crooked: Man-Made Disease Explained, as I was so impressed with this one.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Bayless

    What an amazing book! Well written. Interesting. Nice pace. It’s presented in a non dry fashion. It is very surprising information and should be taught in every high school around the country.The effect polio has had on modern medicine is very important to understand.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Candice Eales

    Fascinating and insightful. Really enjoyed reading this book - I didn’t want to put it down! Highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the history of Polio.

  8. 4 out of 5

    John

    A well written book that is very appropriate for the world of today. Sudden onset of epidemics, the complete change to American society, the panic over a disease, and the failure to properly identify the risk. This is a story of the arrogance of man that is being repeated today. The same ineffective treatments then are being recycled today. The author lays out the well researched facts and lets the reader make the conclusions. This should be required reading for everyone involved is science and A well written book that is very appropriate for the world of today. Sudden onset of epidemics, the complete change to American society, the panic over a disease, and the failure to properly identify the risk. This is a story of the arrogance of man that is being repeated today. The same ineffective treatments then are being recycled today. The author lays out the well researched facts and lets the reader make the conclusions. This should be required reading for everyone involved is science and health. Forrest Maready does a great job of capturing the readers attention and keeping it throughout.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hollie D

    Excellent. You would be surprised by how much you don’t know about the actual history of polio.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Hodge

    DNF. I read about 30 pages of this book before looking into the author's other works. Books about how vaccines cause Autism, a book about how vaccines cause physical defects in children, books about why parents shouldn't vaccinate children. No, the dude is not even close to being a medical professional (graduated with a degree in Religion and Music, whatever the hell that means). As entertaining as the book seems, I can't in good faith trust a book about this topic written by this man. Shame on DNF. I read about 30 pages of this book before looking into the author's other works. Books about how vaccines cause Autism, a book about how vaccines cause physical defects in children, books about why parents shouldn't vaccinate children. No, the dude is not even close to being a medical professional (graduated with a degree in Religion and Music, whatever the hell that means). As entertaining as the book seems, I can't in good faith trust a book about this topic written by this man. Shame on everyone involved in the publishing of this book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    M

    I’m interested in infectious diseases, so I’ve been reading about Poliomyelitis, which has been eradicated in most of the world. I made myself listen to this Audiobook, so I could learn about what sort of bad information is still being published. Poliomyelitis has been eradicated by use of vaccines in most of the world, but the disease is active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I doubt lead arsenates and DDT are still used only in the border areas of both countries. In July 2019, there were 32 cases I’m interested in infectious diseases, so I’ve been reading about Poliomyelitis, which has been eradicated in most of the world. I made myself listen to this Audiobook, so I could learn about what sort of bad information is still being published. Poliomyelitis has been eradicated by use of vaccines in most of the world, but the disease is active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I doubt lead arsenates and DDT are still used only in the border areas of both countries. In July 2019, there were 32 cases of polio paralysis in Pakistan. Most are children under the age of 4. According to WHO, for EACH paralyzed child, there are 200 others who are infected with polio virus. Anti-vaxxers are active in those countries, attempting to “sabotage” the vaccination campaigns. MEASLES OUTBREAK: According to NZ news sources, the latest death toll of the measles epidemic in Samoa is 81. Most victims are under the age of 4. As of 27 December 2019, there are 46 people still in hospital—including 9 critically ill children. Babies are suffering, as are their worried parents and relatives.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Rae

    An excellent read for anyone who is interested in the history of "polio", old-timey pharmaceuticals and the usage of toxic pesticides and agricultural chemicals. An excellent read for anyone who is interested in the history of "polio", old-timey pharmaceuticals and the usage of toxic pesticides and agricultural chemicals.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    Interesting book Lots of historical data about the polio cases and the relationship between outbreaks and external factors such as pesticides. Well written and documented.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Laurel

    The Moth is the Iron Lung is a fascinating history of the Poliomyelitis disease. It was fascinating to me especially because much of the book took place during my lifetime. Polio was first noted in 1894, and it hit its peak in the 1950’s when I was born. Why a moth? Well, the book explains that it was the accidental introduction of a nonnative species gypsy moth by an entomologist in 1869, that began the chain reaction story of how polio began in the USA. The book rings a lot of bells in similari The Moth is the Iron Lung is a fascinating history of the Poliomyelitis disease. It was fascinating to me especially because much of the book took place during my lifetime. Polio was first noted in 1894, and it hit its peak in the 1950’s when I was born. Why a moth? Well, the book explains that it was the accidental introduction of a nonnative species gypsy moth by an entomologist in 1869, that began the chain reaction story of how polio began in the USA. The book rings a lot of bells in similarity to our COVID-19 pandemic today. In 1916 polio was thought to be airborne. Fourth of July Celebrations were cancelled. Children under 16 years old were were cautioned to frequently wash their hands, to stay away socially distant from one another, avoid any crowds—no movies, church services, parties etc. Scientists were desperately trying to create a vaccine. I have several memories of how polio devastated the USA in my growing up years. I remember the fear that we had as children of being like “that boy” that we saw in the school hallways who used a wheelchair or crutches because he was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1960, My Campfire Girls Club went to sing Christmas carols to a middle-aged man who was in an iron lung machine. In 1962, my parents took us all to the local high school gymnasium to stand in a long line of people three Sunday afternoons in a row to receive drops of Albert Sabin’s polio vaccine on a sugar cube. My good friend, Debby, was diagnosed with polio as a young girl, but avoided the devastating results of paralysis. Even though I lived through the polio epidemic I didn’t know much about what caused it, or how it became eradicated in the USA. I read this book from cover to cover in two days because it was so interesting, and it is highly recommended. Scientists had many questions. Why did the virus seem to peak during the summers and go nearly dormant in the other seasons? They tried to figure why some years it would be so prevalent and other years not. They speculated that it was caused by moths, mosquitoes, flies, children playing too hard. Most years, it seemed to hit the rural areas more than cities. Why was it hitting children more than adults and why children in the better areas of town more than those in the slums? Scientists sprayed fields of fruits and vegetables with pesticides made of arsenic and lead to try to kill the moths and insects. The “dipped” cattle in toxic solutions to ward off germs. Later DDT insecticide added to the toxic recipe for polio to increase. Turn of the century medical doctors used arsenic and mercury medicines to try to cure the symptoms of the disease. As the book progresses, you can see that these were some of the main causes of it’s spread. Later DDT added to the toxic recipe for polio to increase. Jonas Salk (1955) and Albert Sabin (1961) were the heroes who finally developed a vaccine that worked. So in 1962, i and my fellow American children could take a few drops of vaccine on a sugar cube, and have a lifetime immunity to this very dreaded disease.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    4 stars. I found this to be a pretty interesting read, one of the most fascinating parts of polio(myelitis) was how early on it seemed to strike the healthiest kids. Unfortunately this was never really explained. Perhaps it's still unknown why that is but I was hoping for the book to have some conclusion on this. I liked the comparison at the end of the book to the Zika Virus and how the portrayal in the media really frames things like this. It's pretty amazing to think that DDT was harmless for h 4 stars. I found this to be a pretty interesting read, one of the most fascinating parts of polio(myelitis) was how early on it seemed to strike the healthiest kids. Unfortunately this was never really explained. Perhaps it's still unknown why that is but I was hoping for the book to have some conclusion on this. I liked the comparison at the end of the book to the Zika Virus and how the portrayal in the media really frames things like this. It's pretty amazing to think that DDT was harmless for humans while it killed every other animal. Then again this was at a time where modern medicine just wasn't really developed. Which was arguably hard when you couldn't even see viruses etc. Overall it was an interesting book but I felt it was missing a few conclusions or at least attempts at explaining certain things.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Didi Cohen

    Wow. Brave, thorough and thought provoking. I had no idea how many factors contributed to what was referred to as Polio at that time. It’s easy to forget how different life was then, yet how many things stay the same. I appreciated that this book was not necessarily a “shame on you” to doctors at the time (which I was concerned it would be) but rather a history of how we problem solve with the resources we have at the time, how solutions can cause new unforeseen problems, and how we can be influ Wow. Brave, thorough and thought provoking. I had no idea how many factors contributed to what was referred to as Polio at that time. It’s easy to forget how different life was then, yet how many things stay the same. I appreciated that this book was not necessarily a “shame on you” to doctors at the time (which I was concerned it would be) but rather a history of how we problem solve with the resources we have at the time, how solutions can cause new unforeseen problems, and how we can be influenced as a species (whether positively or negatively) when we believe science is as pure as we’d wish or that it can be neatly summed up through singular cause and effect experiments. I’m so grateful this author dug deeper. A fascinating work. I wonder what the author will discover many years from now about what’s contributing to our current COVID 19 pandemic.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Trisha

    This book gives the history how polio was started. The moth is because they sprayed toxic arsenic sprays to kill moths and wherever they did the polio was found. It’s amazing how much toxins they sprayed back then. Explains the whole continuation of polio and the vaccine introduction. You can draw your own conclusions.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Tiletha

    A MUST read! If you are not sure you want to...just read the Epilogue and Commentary first and Im sure you will go back and digest the entire book from its start. With all Ive read and studied and seen and continue to learn, if you asked me if I would vaccinate my children if I had my time over again....not in a heart beat. 😔

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emma Penner

    Fascinating point of view, told in a captivating way. I enjoy learning about history, and I found this book to be quite helpful in expanding my knowledge on polio. However- I do think that other books should be read to accompany this one in learning about polio, I wouldn’t just take everything in this as 100% fact right away, I’d like to read from other historians views as well (which would probably be good to do in any subject like this)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    Fascinating read Fascinating but also shocking and devastating, especially since we don’t seem to have learned anything from history. The same greedy mistakes and the same propaganda blinding us to what is really going on, is just repeated with impunity.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lori Wilson

    Learn the real story about polio! I learned a lot about the over-use of dangerous pesticides and how their use affected the brains of so many children! I love the fact that the author provides many references to his claims. Best book I've ever read about polio! Learn the real story about polio! I learned a lot about the over-use of dangerous pesticides and how their use affected the brains of so many children! I love the fact that the author provides many references to his claims. Best book I've ever read about polio!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tina Krogdahl

    This book is a must-read. A superbly written medical detective story that reads like a murder mystery, this book will blow your concept of this disease (and many others) and how our society's institutions deal with them. Well-researched and engagingly written. This book is a must-read. A superbly written medical detective story that reads like a murder mystery, this book will blow your concept of this disease (and many others) and how our society's institutions deal with them. Well-researched and engagingly written.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kim Eales

    Very interesting read....

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Fascinating! I really enjoyed this one and it sparked a lot of thinking and research.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jane Maloney

    Excellent info on vaccine! Very informative.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Morven

    Hilariously written by a man who thinks you shouldn't vaccinate your kids against deadly diseases in case they get autism. Hilariously written by a man who thinks you shouldn't vaccinate your kids against deadly diseases in case they get autism.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Katie Rom

    3 stars for the first half of this book. By the second half I was questioning how factual it was. There were some interesting theories but no evidence to back them up. Zero research cited. It would have been much more powerful if the author had a medical background or cited research by actual scientists. Read with skepticism.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Irkalla Ethrinkah

    Fascinating and eye-opening. Yet another book from this author which is unlike anything you have read before.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Pam Duman

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Corica

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