The Moth in the Iron Lung: A Biography of Polio
By Forrest Maready
Createspace Independent Publishing
If you believe that polio was a virus that swept the nation in the 1900s, attacking the nervous system and resulting in partial paralysis or death, and if you believe that the polio vaccine eradicated it, you should read this book. If you’re convinced that DDT caused polio and that the polio epidemic ended as soon as the pesticide was no longer in use, you should also read this book. Forrest Maready addresses both polio explanations in his “biography” of polio, concluding that both are a bit too facile.
In fact, poliomyelitis appeared before DDT ever came on the scene. There were also many who tested “positive” for the “poliovirus” who never experienced any symptoms or paralysis. And evidence shows that the “vaccines” made to combat the illness did not reduce the incidence of sickness by any significant percentage.
Maready covers a lot of territory in this ambitious book, making no assumptions and avoiding foregone conclusions. Instead, he offers an objective, in-depth take on how the disease appeared, who it affected, how the public and the scientific community reacted and how it vanished (or was vanquished).
It’s a complicated subject. It’s also controversial because polio is one of the main diseases people point to as a vaccination success story. Those who lived through the time of the “terrible disease with a terrible diagnosis and an even more terrible treatment” shudder and thank their lucky stars that science purportedly came to the rescue. As Maready points out, however, “lost amidst the jubilation of Salk’s injected polio vaccine in 1955 and Sabin’s oral polio vaccine in 1961 is an intriguing riddle—what happened before the vaccine?” Maready examines that question, piecing together the available evidence much in the style of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I found that Moth read like a suspense novel, a page-turner and genuine whodunit. In this case, the wily criminal at large caused a mysterious paralysis that often overcame infants and children and sometimes resulted in their death.
Why was this marauder so difficult to pin down? At one point, poor sanitation and poor nutrition were thought to contribute to outbreaks, but strangely, polio seemed to strike primarily the rich. “The better the sanitation, the more frequently paralysis would occur.” Years before Sabin developed his vaccine, he conducted infectious disease research abroad with the U.S. Army. In 1943, he wrote from the Philippines, “The only mystery as I see it, is why the incidence is so much higher among the troops than among the natives.” Locals who tested “positive” for the “poliovirus” had a nearly zero incidence of paralysis—a mystery, indeed.
Noting that poliomyelitis is defined as inflammation of the grey matter of the spinal cord, Maready observes that a “polio” diagnosis was at first given to anyone with paralysis, without attribution to a particular virus; any number of agents or triggers, therefore, could have caused “polio.” Later, scientists determined to identify a single cause of the “outbreaks” chose to focus on a polio enterovirus as the source, though they had a very difficult time infecting monkeys with the supposed virus. (Parallels to the recent mainstream “Covid virus” narrative abound.)
In 1841, the first known cases of “polio” were identified as “teething paralysis.” At the time, doctors encouraged parents to give their children mercury-containing calomel to clear the bowels. Paralysis is now a known side effect of mercury poisoning, but back then, mercury’s role went undetected by most.
In 1888, a gypsy moth invasion led to the application of the arsenic-based pesticide Paris Green throughout much of the northeastern U.S. When this was insufficient to halt the moth, a new pesticide, lead arsenate, was aggressively sprayed. Poisoning from these pesticides re sulted in “outbreaks” of paralysis. No one made the association between the spraying or the diet of the affected patients (which likely included heavily sprayed fresh fruit) and the paralytic or fatal symptoms of polio.
A popular uprising in the 1930s sought to prohibit the use of lead arsenate and Paris Green. Although the two substances were finally banned, DDT quickly took their place. DDT seemed a promising substitute to eradicate pests, until it, too, became linked with ill effects and ultimately was banned in 1972. (By the way, DDT was used heavily in areas where U.S. troops were deployed overseas—a fact that may explain Sabin’s observation that soldiers were “contracting” polio, while most of the native populations of the islands they occupied were not.)
Initial batches of Salk’s vaccine had to be recalled, and in the early days of its rollout it became apparent that “the vaccine was inadvertently causing paralysis and death.” As a matter of fact, an “uptick in paralytic polio” was recorded after the vaccine’s wide distribution. By the time Sabin’s vaccine became broadly available in 1963, poliomyelitis already had nearly disappeared from the U.S. landscape. As pesticide use dropped (with DDT mostly used commercially and no longer recommended for households) and as the era of “metallic medicine” (e.g., using mercury to cleanse bowels) began to end, polio started to vanish. The vaccine had actually come too late to be of any assistance in wiping polio off the map.
There are many more details in this book and many lessons to learn from what we as a country and the entire world went through. Maready’s contextualization of polio is a red flag, warning humanity to avoid the hubris that hindered efforts to identify the cause(s) of the sickness and instead promoted a poorly thought-through, lab-concocted solution. As the saying goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Maready candidly makes it clear that unless we approach epidemics with a good measure of genuine humility and curiosity—and are willing to consider our own role in propagating sickness—we will once again end up with false assumptions and frantic fears of contagion.
The only bone that some may have to pick with Maready are his constant references to viruses; apparently, he is convinced they exist. However, he concedes that a number of agents likely led to the sickness called polio, and not only a virus [emphasis mine]. Other than this uncharacteristically discordant note, this book rings true. Anyone who dares to crack it open will find information that is both factually evenhanded and eye-opening. For this reason, I give it a hearty thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2023🖨️ Print post