Paralysed with Fear: the story of polio. Press release issued 19 June 2013; updated 27 June 2013 by ppn Editor

Thanks to vaccination, polio has been pushed to the brink of extinction – but can we finish the job? This is one of the big questions which a Bristol academic addresses in his new book.

According to a review by The Lancet: “Williams has written a story about good and evil, successfully making poliovirus a villain in a gripping, multiact play. His book should be read by anyone interested in science, medicine, history, and public health. And by anyone interested in an incredible story told by a great storyteller.”

Mankind’s struggle against polio has been one of the grand challenges of modern medicine – and a battleground between good and bad science. Some research won Nobel Prizes while other work was flawed or fraudulent, holding up progress and endangering patients’ lives.

Professor Williams uncovers how peculiar scientific ideas survived and thrived – partly due to the unrelenting pressure for medical scientists to produce results – and how the fear of polio was deliberately exploited in the USA to raise funds for polio research. He also looks at the legacy of the disease, from the establishment of rights for people with disabilities to the ‘post-polio syndrome’ which affects over 120,000 polio survivors in the UK.

The book also asks what the global eradication of polio will mean practically, and how much this would add to the current stalemate of near-eradication, when some argue that funds should be diverted into dealing with the great killers of children in the developing world, such as malaria and rotavirus-induced diarrhoea.

Professor Gareth Williams said: “There are now only three countries left in the world where polio is endemic: northern Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Getting rid of polio for all time is an achievable target, but the story of polio is full of twists and turns and a happy ending is not guaranteed – especially as the major obstacles now are due to human nature rather than anything to do with the polio virus or the limitations of the vaccines.”

The Author.

Head & shoulder photograph of Gareth WilliamsGareth Williams qualified with Honours in Medicine and Pharmacology from Cambridge University in 1977. After training posts in London and Geneva, he moved to Liverpool in 1988 where he built up an internationally recognised research group in diabetes and obesity. In 2003, he moved to Bristol as Dean of Medicine and Dentistry and remains there as Professor of Medicine, now researching the history of polio and the anti-vaccination movement. He has written 200 papers and reviews on diabetes, obesity and medical education and has authored or edited over 20 books, including the prize-winning Textbook of Diabetes. During a sabbatical year in 2009, he wrote Angel of Death: the story of smallpox (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which was described as “medical history at its absolute best” and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Medical Book Prize 2010. Paralysed with Fear: the story of polio, published in June 2013 by Palgrave, has been reviewed in the Lancet as “an incredible story told by a great storyteller”.

Gareth is a former President of the Anglo-French Medical Society and Vice-President of the European Society for Clinical Investigation, and has an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Angers. His main extracurricular interests are playing music (both reputable and disreputable) and writing fiction.

Media Coverage.

In PLOS Medicine Community Blog "Book Review: Polio – Paralysed by Politics?" Ayesha Khan from the Collective for Social Science Research, Pakistan, writes

Williams writes in an accessible and vivid style, drawing together historical, political, and scientific material to tell a tale that is almost over. His research is meticulous and he is unafraid to reveal the darker side of medical research. For example, it was a young Swedish researcher during 1911 who discovered that polio could be transmitted through the gut, but his work was suppressed because the powerful Rockefeller Institute at the time was heavily invested in the theory of olfactory transmission. A full 25 years later, his theory was confirmed by American researchers and Albert Sabin began to think about the possibility of an oral vaccine.

Barbara Kiser, in the 25 July 2013 issue of Nature, 'Books in brief' [Pay Per View], writes

With the World Health Organization poised to roll out its Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan 2013–2018, the door could finally close on this devastating disease. Medical researcher Gareth Williams negotiates the hairpin bends of polio's history with aplomb. He takes us from its discovery by London medic Michael Underwood in the eighteenth century to Karl Landsteiner's isolation of the virus in 1908, and on through the twentieth century, when polio paralaysed and killed millions, and consigned some to iron lungs or a life in callipers. A detailed, science-rich treatment.

the bulletin, the bi-monthly magazine of The British Polio Fellowship, in its review concludes

Authoritative and insightful, warm in tone and compulsively readable, Paralysed with fear is a welcome addition to the Polio history canon.

Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme in a review published in The Bookbag writes

The polio tale is a seriously involved one, and Williams does an excellent job in describing ambitious, vain and wrongheaded scientists; said scientists’ feuds; intellectually attractive ideas which often [outlived] their credibility; researchers who fell out of, then returned to, favour; horrible treatment trial fiascos; and FDR's fate, which served as quite the tool for bringing about what may be the biggest fundraising campaign of all time.

The Gazette Series, a Gloucestershire newspaper, carried the news item Rockhampton professor Gareth Williams chronicles bizarre history of polio in new book by Marion Sauvebois.

In a review in the Times Higher Education Helen Bynum closes with the following observation

"Williams hoped to end with “a pithy epitaph”. Despite substantial overruns in time and money, the world is close to eradicating polio. The announcement that the Taliban has decided to support, rather than shoot, vaccinators is good news. But what eradication will leave, Williams says, is a global population vulnerable to chance mutations in the originating Coxsackie virus or the production of a synthetic version of one of the severe strains: sobering thoughts."

"The history of polio and its treatment is one of dead ends, missed opportunities and downright skulduggery"; the subheading to Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio by Gareth Williams – review by Wendy Moore in The Guardian. She writes

"Thanks – eventually – to worldwide collaboration polio might well soon become history. But, as Williams's punchy book reveals, that history is a quite extraordinary one."

Literature Works is the strategic literature development charity for South West England. They are a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England. Literature Works caught up with Gareth to talk to him about his new book. You can read the interview here.

The Lancet carried a review by Paul Offit, in its 25 May issue. In the review he wrote

“Williams has written a story about good and evil, successfully making poliovirus a villain in a gripping, multiact play. His book is especially timely as we are now on the verge of eliminating poliovirus from the world. Indeed, only three countries continue to suffer endemic disease and type 2 poliovirus has already been eradicated—the second human virus to succumb to vaccination (smallpox was the first). His book should be read by anyone interested in science, medicine, history, and public health. And by anyone interested in an incredible story told by a great storyteller.”

Where to Buy?

The following list of Book Suppliers has been compiled by Post-Polio News. The links will take you to the suppliers page for Paralysed with Fear unless otherwise stated. The list is not intended to be comprehensive and new suppliers may be added over time.

Personalised copies of Paralysed with Fear are available exclusively from Dr Jenner's House Museum. Professor Gareth Williams will sign copies of his book with special messages for friends, family members or even yourself - a perfect gift for anyone interested in Polio and the eradication mission.

"If you buy your copy of the book through the museum, then in addition to the royalties the museum gets the book sellers slice - so more money for them. We are also going to be selling copies of signed books through the website and if anybody wants a personalised inscription all they have to do is email the museum and I'll be very happy to pop in and add that." Professor Gareth Williams.

Palgrave Macmillan, the publisher:

Amazon, UK:

Waterstones, UK:

Book Depository

Sainsbury's Entertainment, UK: This is the online home for independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. To order, begin with the book, Paralysed with Fear and then search for the bookshop of your choice.

And if you are in or near Bristol, do drop by the Durdham Down Bookshop where you can purchase copies of Paralysed with Fear signed by the author.

Macmillan, publisher's US site:

Amazon, USA:

Amazon, Canada:

Amazon, Germany:

Amazon, India:

Amazon, Spain:

Amazon, Japan:

Boomerang Books, Australia:

This page is provided by Post-Polio News and was last updated August 18, 2015 .