‘The Woman with the Cure’ by Lynn Cullen is a fascinating look at the eradication of polio that celebrates the women who were instrumental in that success

In “The Woman with the Cure,” Lynn Cullen’s masterful historical fiction, she focuses on Dr. Dorothy Horstmann, a little-known woman scientist, who made important contributions in the race to find a way to eradicate polio. Cullen also brings to life familiar figures in the race against polio such as Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. We learn much about both men, and of course, they are the scientists who come to mind when we think of those who created polio vaccines that saved so many lives. Cullen brings to the forefront the women who also performed important work, work that enabled these two famous men to create their vaccines. But as with so many brilliant women in history, the real women we meet in this story, especially Dorothy Horstmann, have remained largely invisible until Cullen’s research demonstrates their dedication, their determination, and their desperate attempts to destroy this horrific disease.

In the Acknowledgments, Cullen shares a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And in her weighty novel, Cullen does just that; she presents us with a historical view of the people involved in the race to defeat polio and makes them real in a way that just reading facts and historical dates could not. And although the novel is a fictionalized version of this history, she’s careful to use real dates, real people, and real events for the important parts. We know that Cullen made up much of the dialogue and the actual scenes, although she did not make up the places, people, and dates of the important events.

What Cullen is able to do by making these historical figures come alive in the novel is to showcase the discrimination, the indignities, the boorish behavior and the unwelcome sexual advances that women experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. Much like “Lessons in Chemistry,” to which this book has been compared and whose author Bonnie Garmus penned a comment for the cover, we see clearly that highly intelligent, highly driven women were belittled and diminished constantly. What Garmus does so well with humor and a lovely narrative, Cullen accomplishes in a different manner. There is less humor in this story, but then the subject of polio doesn’t lend itself to jokes. Instead of humor, Cullen’s ability to share real facts and history behind the long, long process of developing a polio vaccine, bringing to life the pain and suffering of the victims and their families as well as the dedication of the scientists and those who cared for the polio patients, make this novel a touching and immersive experience.

While Dorothy Hortsmann, the protagonist, is deserving of a Nobel prize, and all the male scientists think she will win it, two men do instead. When she believes that polio travels from the gut to the blood and wants to prove it, she is not supported for years, until a male scientist starts to research it and she finally gets the green light to study it, but not before wasted years that could have accelerated the creation of a vaccine.

Dorothy is a remarkable woman, and in spite of her stellar medical school history, no university would take her for a residency because of her gender. At Vanderbilt, she was denied a resident position because of her gender, but by mistake a letter of acceptance was sent out for Dr. D. M. Horstmann. She would eventually become the first woman to become a full professor at the Yale medical school, and when polio was conquered and after the book’s narrative ends, Cullen explains that Dr. Horstmann also worked on the rubella vaccine which is still in use on children. We see how this remarkable woman sacrificed almost everything for her dedication: a love life, children, hobbies, and virtually any pleasurable activities. She worked around the clock; she traveled at a moment’s notice when asked to study polio outbreaks all over the world; and she was the one who was instrumental in the Russian study that validated Sabin’s polio vaccine.

Other strong women who worked on conquering polio are also part of the narrative. Besides Dorothy Horstmann, Isabel Morgan’s research created a vaccine that worked to immunize monkeys from polio, and it was her vaccine, in fact, that was the basis for the Salk vaccine. Another scientist, Elsie Ward, was the one to discover a method of growing the poliovirus outside of a living body, saving countless primate lives and enabling the production of enough virus to inoculate millions of children. Another woman, Bernice Eddy, worked for NIH and learned that the vaccine from one company resulted in the test monkeys being paralyzed, but her warning was ignored, and the subsequent use of that contaminated vaccine resulted in 40,000 cases of polio, killing many and paralyzing hundreds more. We meet Sister Elizabeth Kenny, who was instrumental in developing a new method of treating polio, and Barbara Johnson, a laboratory technician who was paralyzed with polio after a workplace accident but went on the work with Sabin as his statistician.

Cullen emphasizes that this novel is a work of fiction, but she explains; “Even the scenes made up out of whole cloth happened within the actual timeline of the battle against polio, so ostensibly, they could have happened.” By recreating those many years for us through the eyes of Dr. Horstmann, Cullen brings alive the race against death and provides information that will be unfamiliar to many. For example, I never realized that when I was born, there was no vaccine against polio. I’m sure many besides me believed that the only reason that the Sabin “live virus” vaccine was used universally instead of the Salk “killed virus” vaccine was a set of political arguments. And while Cullen demonstrates that politics do play a huge part in scientific development (just think about COVID), there was much more involved in the Salk vs. Sabin issue. We also learn about the science behind both vaccines.

Perhaps one of my favorite scenes, which illustrates Cullen’s amazing ability to bring characters and situations to life, is when in a polio ward we see a woman playing Candyland with the other patients, most of whom are children. She is beautifully coiffed and wears pearls, and she loses every single game she plays. Cullen tugs at our heartstrings as we see how this woman, encased in an iron lung, brings joy to others in the ward. She tells Dorothy that the game was created by a fellow polio patient, a California school teacher who herself was in the hospital with polio.

When I reached out to Cullen with some questions about Dorothy’s love interest, she explained the inclusion of Arne Holm. While the Arne in the novel is a purely fictitious character, he is based on some very real historical personages. Cullen said, “She had no husband and children, yet she loved children and was known to be exceedingly warm, caring, and fun. A close colleague has said that Dorothy, not the complaining sort, did voice one great regret: that to achieve what she wanted to achieve, women in science couldn’t have it all. Something had to give. In her case, what obviously “gave” was having a love life. So I gave her one.”

She also explained why Arne was Danish. “I spied a little blue dish in the posthumous portrait commissioned by Yale in 2019, so I asked the painter, Alastair Adams, why he included it on the desk at which Dorothy is seated in the picture. He said that the little blue dish, which was Royal Copenhagen porcelain, appeared over the years in photos of her at her desk. It was obviously dear to her, he said. I knew that Dorothy went to conferences in Denmark and loved it there (as do I!), so, based on a photo of an unidentified handsome but kind-looking man with Dorothy that she inexplicably kept in her archives, I gave Dorothy the love interest that she deserved — and then proceeded to see what she would do with him. That’s the long of it. The short is while everything about Arne is based on fact, he is fictitious. I hope there really was an Arne in Dorothy’s life, and that he’s the man in the photo.” And after reading this detailed and extremely well-researched novel, in which we come to really admire and adore Dorothy, you will hope that she did, indeed, have a love life. 

And as a side dish, Cullen serves us some select examples of the subjugation of women from the clothes they were made to wear because of societal expectations to the advertisements of the day that reinforced a woman’s place in the home—specifically in the kitchen. For example, one of the secretaries at Yale, a Mrs. Beasley, was a PhD in mathematics. She is emblematic of all the brilliant women during that time who were unable to really use their education and brains and instead were only able to work in “women’s” jobs.

“The Woman with the Cure” is engrossing from the very first page. In Cullen’s capable hands we grow fond of Dorothy, we sympathize with her frustration at the treatment she must endure at the hands of her mostly male colleagues, the little snubs and casual cruelties, and the heartbreaking fact that during that time men could have their careers and a family, and women simply could not. Thought provoking, informative, and ultimately touching and filled with emotion, this is a novel that will change the way its readers think about vaccines, medicine, and the struggles of brilliant women in twentieth century America.

Please note: An abbreviated version of this review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.