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Writing polio’s history

Sarah Gibbard Cook loves a good mystery: The protagonist of her novel-in-progress, set during the siege of Rhodes in 1480, is a young Englishwoman intent on uncovering a traitor’s identity. For the time being, Rotarians can discover Cook’s aptitude for writing a detective story through her two-part Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World, which – especially in its first volume, Making the Promise – has some of the characteristics of a tense thriller. 

Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World: Making the Promise and Almost Every Child are available at (search “polio books”) for $15 each. 

Photo by Jean-Marc Giboux

With a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, Cook arrived at Rotary in 1981 to serve as assistant manager of the 3-H (Health, Hunger, and Humanity) Program, the predecessor to global grants. She left Rotary in 1992 to work as a freelance writer; in 1994, when Rotary commissioned a book to document its fight against polio, Cook got the assignment.

After Rotary abandoned its plan to publish the book in time for the 1996 Calgary convention, the endeavor, says Cook, “became an ongoing, ever-growing project.” Finally, in 2013, the first volume appeared; the second, Almost Every Child, followed in 2015.

After documenting Rotary’s early devotion to helping children with disabilities and tracking the quest for a polio vaccine, Cook follows the internecine conflict over focusing some of the organization’s resources on solving a single global problem (rather than allowing each club to decide which projects it preferred to undertake). She also describes the resistance Rotary encountered from international health agencies that worried, as Cook writes, “that an emphasis on polio eradication might impede the development of broader primary health-care systems.”

Ken Solow, left, executive producer of Dare to Dream, with Rafe Henderson, the first director of the Expanded Program on Immunization for the World Health Organization.

Photo by Ilana Bittner, Pixel Workshop

While the outcome of these struggles is well-known – Rotary’s work to end polio continues today – to Cook’s credit, the books, like a good mystery encountered for the second time, are still compelling. That’s a result, in part, of their strong cast of characters, which includes past RI presidents such as James Bomar, Jack Davis, Carlos Canseco, Cliff Dochterman, Herb Pigman, and Clem Renouf; a mélange of medical marvels, especially Rotary’s own John Sever; some heroic figures, such as Côte d’Ivoire’s Marie-Irène Richmond Ahoua; and a number of pivotal players from outside Rotary. 

“I view them as giants,” says Ken Solow, executive producer of Dare to Dream: How Rotary Became the Heart and Soul of Polio Eradication. (A member of the Rotary Club of Columbia-Patuxent in Maryland, Solow is a past governor of District 7620.) The most valuable aspect of the documentary, which is based on Cook’s first volume, is the interviews with the Rotarians and others (including past and current International PolioPlus Committee Chairs Robert S. Scott and Michael K. McGovern, and many of the names above) who lived through the early years of the polio fight, helped direct its progress, and share the credit for its successes. 

The third volume of Cook’s trilogy, Fulfilling the Promise, is slated to appear once the battle against polio is finally won. Cook has already written about two-thirds of that book – and she’s confident she will one day write its conclusion. The plot thickens   

– Geoff Johnson

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