Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Eventually [character] was moved by ambulance to a Sister Kenny Institute in Philadelphia, where, by this point in the summer, the epidemic was nearly as bad as it was in Newark and the hospital’s wards were so crowded that he was fortunate to get a bed. There the hot pack treatment continued, along with painful stretching of the contracted muscles of his arms and legs and of his back—which the paralysis had twisted—in order to “reeducate” them. He spent the next fourteen months in rehabilitation at the Kenny Institute, gradually recovering the full use of his right arm and partial use of his legs, though he was left with a twisted lower spine that had to be corrected several years later by a surgical fusion and a bone graft and the insertion of metal rods attached to the spine. The recuperation from the surgery put him on his back in a body cast for six months, tended day and night by his grandmother. He was at the Kenny Institute when President Roosevelt unexpectedly died, in April 1945, and the country went into mourning. He was there when defeated Germany surrendered in May, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, and when Japan asked to surrender to the Allies a few days later. World War II was over, his buddy Dave would be coming home unscathed from fighting in Europe, America was jubilant, and he was still in the hospital, disfigured and maimed.

I don't often post here these days about my work, but this is an exception. A month or so ago I was handed a new dossier – assisting Rotary in its campaign to eradicate polio worldwide, as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. It is worth noting that tremendous success has been achieved in this campaign. Polio is now endemic only in certain parts of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan; worldwide confirmed cases are now down to 26 in those three countries for the first nine months of this year, compared to 650 in 16 countries worldwide as recently as in 2011. It's entirely possible that polio could become the second major human disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated from the planet. (We are in a race with guinea worm. Rinderpest has already been eradicated, but it affects cattle rather than humans.)

We who were born in the developed world after 1955 have no memory of just how universal polio was, but the scars are around us if we care to look. An old friend in Belfast, who died last year, used a wheelchair for most of his life after surviving polio as a child in the 1940s. A relative, in her 70s now, similarly caught it as a child and recovered but with one leg permanently weakened. The list of famous polio survivors has some very surprising names on it, but the most striking thing about it is that it is so long. I enjoy all of the work that I do, but every minute that I spend helping Rotary's campaign has a special significance.

I was advised to read Nemesis, by Philip Roth, to help me get to grips with the problem. It's a short but very compelling book about an outbreak of polio among a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, in 1944. The central character has to deal with the consequences of the outbreak first at the playground he is supervising during the school holiday, then at the summer camp where his fiancé is working, then with the aftermath of recovery. The hot hot summer, and oppressive social context of a suburban society which is both subject to prejudice from the outside and rife with prejudice of its won, are vividly depicted, and it conveys better than any textbook possibly could the psychological impact of polio, both the general effects of any epidemic disease, and the specifics of this particular illness, viewed from more than fifty years later. It is actually the first Philip Roth novel that I have read, but it won't be the last.

I mistakenly thought that this was non-fiction when I bought it, and it zoomed to the top of my unread non-fiction pile. Next in that pile is SPQR, by Mary Beard.