The Woman with the Cure
“WW II’s worldwide impact, V-Day, and the role of women in the workplace are depicted alongside the use of animals for testing, and the thwarted attempt and eventual recall of the first mass-released, poliovirus vaccine.”
The timeliness of Lynn Cullen’s novel, The Woman with the Cure, will not go unnoticed. Its subject matter is resoundingly poignant in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Cullen’s well-researched novel painstakingly humanizes the behind-the-scenes intricacies of the urgent search to create a global vaccine against the poliovirus. We follow personally invested scientists in their race to find a cure. The historical fiction story blends esoteric knowledge as applied to scientific research toward vanquishing the poliovirus, while focusing on a female doctor who wants to save the world yet maintain some semblance of a normal life in the midst of a harrowing humanitarian crisis.
The Woman with the Cure is anchored by the well-drawn, exceedingly likable protagonist Dorothy Horstmann, the youngest of three children born to German immigrant parents who own and operate a neighborhood bar in San Francisco. It’s a hardscrabble life, when the family’s livelihood is impacted significantly by 1942’s prohibition, and when her beloved father, Henry, is taken ill with encephalitis, Dorothy’s taciturn mother takes charge of the family’s well-being and accommodates for her husband without complaint, now that the once reliable, robust man is rendered perpetually childlike: “His illness had burned away all the layers accumulated by the rough business of living and left his core of pure love.”
Dorothy Horstmann’s upbringing is unconventional. At age 13, while her peers are dating and going to dances, Dorothy teaches piano lessons to supplement her family’s income. “She herself hadn’t exactly had the kind of childhood where she sat on her mother’s lap being read to. Sitting on the bar while her mother washed glasses and avoided men was more like it.”
Being raised by German speaking parents, Dorothy acquires her undergraduate degree in English at a San Francisco university before applying to medical school. Once a medical doctor, Dorothy is accepted to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital as a resident based on her record, but her acceptance comes by accident, when Dorothy uses Dr. D.M. Horstmann on her application. In addition to competitive times for the rare female doctor, Dorothy has the challenge of her unusual stature. The young, dedicated Dorothy is six feet tall, and often gawked at, but her outsider’s upbringing as the daughter of working-class immigrants makes her the stuff of strong mettle, and she remains focused and undaunted by the disadvantage of constant scrutiny. Her passion for her work is all that matters, and it shows.
When Dorothy travels to Cincinnati to attend a wedding, fate aligns her with renowned and revered doctor Albert Sabin, who has recently begun research on the feared poliovirus now sweeping the nation. The professional relationship that evolves between the doctors keeps them in the same scientific orbit spanning the decade to come, centered on their shared epidemiological research to identify the poliovirus’s source, in hopes of creating an effective vaccine. The pursuit is fraught with peril, due to worldwide polio outbreaks, other labs seeking vaccine credit, and the need for accurate field testing in a tense race against time. Cullen wields the facts without weighing down the story. That she establishes the people behind the job lends the story high stakes authenticity. The reader wants to know what they know.
It is 1944, and Dorothy is two years into studying polio outbreaks across the country as they incrementally arise. World War II has called many in the medical community to its frontlines, but Dorothy continues her epidemiology work, funded through Yale University. Common opinion holds that “the poliovirus virus enters the body through the olfactory neuronal pathway and spreads directly from there to the central nervous system.” When her own research leads her to study a series of regional outbreaks, Dorothy confides to a female colleague, “What bothers me is that we still don’t know how polio leaps from the stomach to the nervous system to paralyze people. It should show up in the blood if that’s the case. . . . How does it get to the nervous system, if not through the blood?”
Arne Holm is from a town called Kongens Lyngby, on the outskirts of Copenhagen. He literally bumps into Dorothy in the hallway of a San Francisco hospital, where Dorothy is studying the heartbreaking effects of polio as an attending pediatrician, and the author vividly takes us into the pediatric ward to show us the methods of treatment ranging from the application of heated wet blankets to the mechanics of an iron lung.
In town to talk to a lab about acquiring penicillin for a Denmark hospital, Arne is self-deprecating, charming, and taller than Dorothy. Their mutual attraction is instant. In time, their long-distance relationship takes root, and Dorothy learns Arne is something of a Danish folk hero, who risked his life during the war by evacuating Jews from occupied Denmark and personally suffered a terrible loss. The dimension he adds to Dorothy’s life tells her there’s a world beyond science, and she is torn.
As her reputation in the global scientific community rises, the race for the cure intensifies. Dorothy lives out of a suitcase as she’s called from one country to the next to study the dynamic of the raging poliovirus, and her relationship with Arne suffers.
When different strains of the virus are discovered, Dr. Jonas Salk develops a vaccine with a neutralized live strain in it that causes Albert Sabin’s concern over the risk of accidental, ineffective dormancy. When Salk’s celebrated vaccine is released and found to be not only ineffective but damaging, an adjustment is made that includes Dorothy Horstmann’s signature, but will history give her credit?
In The Woman with the Cure, author Lynn Cullen does an extraordinary job of fluidly taking the reader from 1940 to 1963 by including significant historical moments and sensitive social concerns in the story’s evenly paced momentum. WW II’s worldwide impact, V-Day, and the role of women in the workplace are depicted alongside the use of animals for testing, and the thwarted attempt and eventual recall of the first mass-released, poliovirus vaccine. The balance of historic fact and scientific detail is beautifully tempered by Dorothy Horstmann’s personal story. She’s a woman we champion from the start, enthusiastically follow, and come to recognize as one of history’s great heroines.