The Woman With the Cure by Lynn Cullen
Review,  Historical Fiction

The Woman With the Cure by Lynn Cullen – historical fiction about polio pandemic

The Woman With the Cure is well-written, inspiring, and motivating historical fiction about polio pandemic and the woman who found the cure for it.

historical fiction about polio pandemic

The Woman With the Cure by Lynn Cullen

Publication Date : February 21, 2023

Publisher : Berkley

Read Date : February 28, 2023

Genre : Historical Fiction

Pages : 400

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tea for this book : Green Tea

Disclaimer – Many thanks to the publisher for eARC via NetGalley.
This post contains affiliate links.


She gave up everything— and changed the world.

A riveting novel based on the true story of the woman who stopped a pandemic, from the bestselling author of Mrs. Poe.

In 1940s and ’50s America, polio is as dreaded as the atomic bomb. No one’s life is untouched by this disease that kills or paralyzes its victims, particularly children. Outbreaks of the virus across the country regularly put American cities in lockdown. Some of the world’s best minds are engaged in the race to find a vaccine. The man who succeeds will be a god.

But Dorothy Horstmann is not focused on beating her colleagues to the vaccine. She just wants the world to have a cure. Applying the same determination that lifted her from a humble background as the daughter of immigrants, to becoming a doctor –often the only woman in the room–she hunts down the monster where it lurks: in the blood.

This discovery of hers, and an error by a competitor, catapults her closest colleague to a lead in the race. When his chance to win comes on a worldwide scale, she is asked to sink or validate his vaccine—and to decide what is forgivable, and how much should be sacrificed, in pursuit of the cure.


 historical fiction about polio pandemic

The Woman With the Cure is inspiring historical fiction based on race to find the cure for polio and a female doctor who dedicated her life to fight against polio and had been the backbone to the discovery of the polio vaccine.

Before starting this book I never heard about Dr. Dorothy Horstmann and only two names pop up when we search about Polio Vaccine,  Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. There is no mention of Dorothy Horstmann who discovered how Polio travels from blood to the nervous system that causes paralysis which has been most important to make vaccines.

It’s sad to see Bodin’s name for the same discovery even though he and Dorothy presented their research at the same time but it’s Bodin who gets the name and fame for what was initially Dorothy’s ideas who couldn’t work on her theory earlier as male-dominated field refused to fund her theory and research.

Spanning from 1940 to 1960 The Woman With the Cure covers– the beginning of the Polio outbreak in the U.S. that kept worsening over time until the vaccine was discovered, how Dorothy entered in the medical field, did her residency in Nashville where she first met Dr. Sabin, how she got fellowship at Yale where her actual fight against Poliovirus began along with her struggle at every step of her life and how long it took her to climb ladders in a male-dominated scientific field that took too long to appreciate her mind and knowledge and still not to fullest.

We also get a glimpse of Dorothy’s personal life, her relationship with her parents, her childhood and how she found love that stayed second to her love to conquer disease.

The horrors, and fears of children and parents, the frustration of scientists not being able to figure out how to stop Polio, and different variants of Polio popping up its head in every season taking more and more lives and all of these in the middle of WWII, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America’s tense relationship with Russia… It was all sad and poignant to read about people losing their lives not just to war but to disease for two whole decades.

It was amazing how the author included all geniuses of the medical field and all the discoveries made in this time period. It was interesting to read how Polio patients were taken care of, the different methods and steps taken by medical and paramedical staff to help polio patients and prevent Polio from taking more lives. Even though it includes many medical terms, I think it’s easy for non-medical readers to understand it. There were many other facts and information related to medical discoveries and war included in the book.

While the personal life of all real-life characters was fictional, it was easy to root for Dorothy, feel her struggle and emotions that she didn’t show on her face. It was truly inspiring to see her constantly work against disease and for people, never letting ego and race of men affect her goal and nature.

We see she wasn’t immune to the unfairness of the world and men- humiliating her, slowly taking away her chance to work on her dream, taking credit of her work and never giving her the credit she deserved- and yet she always showed compassion, empathy, encouragement and support for fellow scientists be it men or women. It was sad to see her work alone not having someone who truly understood her, with whom she could share her thoughts and feelings.

It was truly a wonder to see her keep working for the good of the world with a smile on her face and love in her heart without expecting anything from anyone.

Dorothy’s life journey shows what it’s like to be an immigrant in the country, women’s positions and situations in 40s-60s, gender inequality in medical field of the era, what it’s like to work in male-dominated field, males often trying to cross coworker boundaries, and how some made gossips out of a good teamwork, how much women has to sacrifice for passion and dream, go through struggle to maintain life-work balance while men could have it all.

What I loved most is, while this story focused on Dorothy it also includes women from many walks of life, mothers, nurses, doctors, wives of scientists, women scientists, assistants, and statisticians… who all played important role, showed tremendous courage and strength in their own way… like the author said it easily could be “Women with the Cure”.

Last two parts are my most favorite which showed the actual race between Salk and Sabin for Polio vaccine and Dorothy’s contribution in making that happen, helping Sabin’s vaccine be successful. At first I didn’t get why I was getting more story of Sabin’s wife but at the end it made sense. This is truly a story of courage, strength, resilience, and passion.

Why 4 stars-

As much as I enjoyed the scientific aspect, the race to discover the Polio vaccine, and other fictionalized stories, I also felt the personal life stories of all characters dragged the story making it slow-paced.

Overall, The Woman With the Cure is well-written, inspiring, and motivating historical fiction on a woman who found the base of the cure for Polio.

I recommend this if you life,
Historical fiction based on real historical figue
Book about a pandemic
Women in male-dominated field
Process of developing a polio vaccine
Real heroes in the fight against Polio
Medical discoveries in 40s-60s
Slow-medium pace

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Hi, I'm Yesha, an Indian book blogger. Avid and eclectic reader who loves to read with a cup of tea. Not born reader but I don't think I’m going to stop reading books in this life. “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”


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