Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Book Review: The Woman with the Cure

By Jami Denison

In the gym a few weeks ago, I eavesdropped on two women discussing the immunization schedule of their babies. One woman had gotten the polio vaccine for her child but had balked at additional shots. The second woman eschewed them all, saying that children’s immune systems were strengthened by forgoing vaccines. It took all my willpower to keep my mouth shut. Where are new mothers getting their medical information these days? How can they possibly know so little about how the immune system works? 

Historical fiction author Lynn Cullen’s latest novel, The Woman with the Cure,  focuses on the scientific community’s fight to cure polio and specifically on Dr. Dorothy Horstmann, a researcher who devoted her life to sick children. Dr. Horstmann, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2001 at the age of 89, would have been horrified to learn about how lies about autism and “fake news” on the internet contributed to the trend of vaccine refusal. 

In 1940, Dr. Dorothy Horstmann was fighting for her career. As a female doctor, it was almost impossible for her to find placement after her residency. And as a woman over six feet tall, her height made her even more of an oddity. It was hard for her to be taken seriously as either a doctor or a woman. But with America’s entry in World War II and many doctors headed off to war, Dorothy finally found herself with opportunities to do what she dreamed of doing—discovering exactly how the polio virus infiltrated the body and did its damage. 

Still,  Dorothy’s gender meant she was often treated as second-best, and her ideas discarded or stolen. Dr. Horstmann was convinced that the virus traveled from the gut to the nervous system via the blood, but when her experiments didn’t immediately bear this out, she was forced to move in different directions. Meanwhile, most of the scientific and medical communities were focused on the dueling investigations of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. When Salk’s vaccine ended up killing and paralyzing children, it seemed the world might never trust the vaccine hunters again.  

Although Cullen began work on The Woman with the Cure before COVID became a pandemic, it’s easy to see how living through that crisis influenced her work on the book. The scenes of anguished parents and empty beaches easily could have taken place in the summer of 2020. The book spans twenty years; the research into a polio vaccine took even longer. Reading about this, I was struck again about how lucky we were that the creation of the mRNA vaccine model allowed scientists to develop a COVID vaccine relatively quickly. 

The book itself is a bit choppy – obviously, with such a long timespan, Cullen couldn’t tell a strict linear narrative, and she hopscotches over years. In addition, with so much research about the fight against polio, Cullen couldn’t contain herself to just Dorothy’s point-of-view. Several chapters are told from the points-of-view of other women involved in the fight, including another female researcher. Rather than rounding out the story, these chapters distract the reader and make it more difficult to follow Dorothy’s throughline. I was interested in Dorothy’s personal life and in her friendship with one of her lab’s animal trainers; I didn’t need a chapter from the point-of-view of the man’s wife. Conversely, watching the politics and the rivalries and the jockeying for credit from Dorothy’s point-of-view was fascinating and depressing, knowing that her name was nearly lost to history.  

Thanks to Dorothy’s work, polio was once eradicated in the western world. But this year, it was found again in the wastewater in New York City. Reading The Woman with the Cure reminded me of reading historical fiction about World War II. These books were once a warm reminder of how the world faced the worst and triumphed. Now they serve to warn us that what goes around, comes around. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Lynn Cullen:

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