Lynn CullenFeb 19, 2023
The Woman with the Cure
Berkley Books 2023
The essential contribution of The Woman with the Cure (Berkley Books, 2023) can be summarized in one sentence: like most of its future readers (I assume), I had never before heard of Dorothy Horstmann and her fundamental role in the research that led to the near-eradication of polio, despite having benefited hugely from her work. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s, she devoted her considerable talents and endless hours to tracking how polio spread throughout the body, but like the other remarkable women portrayed in this novel, she was forced because of her gender to play second fiddle to Doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, her academic colleagues. Their contributions, of course, were also real and worthy of acclaim, but it was Dr. Horstmann—too often dismissed as “Dottie” or “Dot,” as if she were someone’s secretary—who made the crucial discovery that early in its path from the digestive to the nervous system, the polio virus created antibodies in the blood. That finding made the polio vaccine possible by defining an entry point for medical intervention.
Reading this novel has a particular resonance at this moment, when polio outbreaks are again affecting US cities because of vaccine hesitancy and the final eradication of the disease has been deterred in certain countries by political concerns—not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed everyone’s experience of quarantine and disease. But I would like to emphasize that this is, first and foremost, a novel, centered on complex characters, a gripping plot, and the age-old battle between science and nature. I don’t know, for example, whether Dorothy’s love interest is a real person or the author’s way of contrasting the attractions of home with the pull exerted by fulfilling work. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because The Woman with the Cure works as a story, provoking questions about the choices its heroine makes and what we might do in similar circumstances—and that’s what counts.
Lynn Cullen is the bestselling author of the historical novels The Sisters of Summit Avenue, Twain’s End, Mrs. Poe, Reign of Madness, and I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter. The Woman with the Cure is her latest book.
C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. Her next book, Song of the Storyteller, appeared in January 2023.