The threat of polio has been absent from American society for so long that any mention of the disease today is generally in a historic context. The excellent documentary “A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio” details the indefatigable efforts made to stamp out polio, providing a stunning cinematic celebration of the brilliant scientists and researchers who neutralized its threat and the many brave men and women who survived the disease and prospered to enjoy full lives. This is the rare documentary which turns history in a provocative action-adventure, rich with brilliant heroes in a life-or-death struggle to put an end to the greatest disease in modern society.
Polio itself has been around since the beginning of recorded time, but in the United States the disease took on a newfound urgency when an epidemic swept New York City in 1916, killing and crippling in a wide brush stroke which took no heed to wealth, race, age or ethnic origin. Perhaps the most famous polio victim was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio as an adult in 1921 and was left paralyzed from the waist down. Roosevelt’s physical misfortune, ironically, turned into a blessing for research efforts to stop polio. After becoming President of the United States in 1933, Roosevelt used the White House to spearhead the March of Dimes fundraising effort to raise funds for a vaccine to stop the spread of polio. Considering the March of Dimes push began during the Depression and continued through World War II (two periods when charitable donations were at all-time lows), the altruism by the American public in giving freely to fund polio research was an astonish act of national generosity.
“A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio” provides rare insights into the long-forgotten stories of pre-Salk Vaccine polio treatment. Most horrifically, by contemporary standards, were the coffin-like iron lung respirators which simultaneously imprisoned its patients in a huge metal canister while keeping their bodies alive. The awkward iron lungs nearly proved fatal during electrical blackouts, when hospital staffs performed extraordinary feats of strength in manually operating these behemothic machines until power was restored; they were eventually replaced by more comfortable tilting beds.
Contracting polio did not automatically mean one was doomed to permanent paralysis. Among those interviewed in the film is Ben Bradlee, who developed polio as a child but later was able to serve in the armed forces during World War II and later had a distinguished journalism career as executive editor of the Washington Post. Today there are approximately 350,000 American adults are living with some degree of polio. Among the polio victims featured in this film are historian Geoffrey C. Ward, filmmaker Henry Hampton, and noted physicians Dr. William Cochran and Dr. Andy Sullivan.
“A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio” does a great service in recalling many long-obscure individuals responsible for taking on polio. Among those remembered here are Sister Elizabeth Kenny, the no-nonsense Australian nurse who forced the medical community to acknowledge the therapeutic value of her wet heat treatments; Basil O’Connor, the gruff New York lawyer who was handpicked by President Roosevelt to direct the March of Dimes fundraising drives (which he accomplished in a near-religious fervor); and the Nobel Prize winning researchers Dr. Frederick C. Robbins and Dr. Thomas H. Weller, whose studies of the polio virus pinpointed how the disease did its damage. The name most associated with polio is, of course, Dr. Jonas Salk, whose vaccine provided the breakthrough that ultimately killed the panic created by the disease. Dr. Salk would not patent his vaccine, thus denying himself a fortune while offering the world a new era of freedom from fear. The Salk vaccine, which involved injection, was later bypassed by the ingestible vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. Incredibly, neither man received a Nobel Prize for their efforts.
“A Fight to the Finish: Stories of Polio” is co-produced by Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, one of the leading health care centers for the treatment of polio. The film is currently playing at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York, after enjoying a successful journey across the festival circuit. This film offers a marvelous history of the greatest health threat of the past century and it deserves to be seen and enjoyed by as many people as possible.