Skip to main content

The Woman with the Cure


The Woman with the Cure

THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE, Lynn Cullen's masterful work of historical fiction, focuses on Dr. Dorothy Horstmann, a little-known scientist who made important contributions in helping to stop a pandemic.

In the Acknowledgements, Cullen shares a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures." In her weighty novel she does just that, paying tribute to the people involved in the race to eradicate polio and making them real in a way that merely reading facts and dates could not. She also showcases the discrimination, indignities, boorish behavior and unwelcome sexual advances that women experienced in the 1950s and ’60s.

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

"THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE is engrossing from the very first page.... Thought-provoking, informative, and ultimately touching and filled with emotion, this novel will change the way that readers think about vaccines, medicine and the struggles of brilliant women in 20th-century America."

Dorothy is a remarkable woman with a stellar medical school history. At Vanderbilt, though, she was denied a resident position because of her gender. However, by mistake, a letter of acceptance was sent out for Dr. D. M. Horstmann. She eventually would be the first woman to become a full professor at the Yale School of Medicine. After polio was conquered, Dorothy worked on the rubella vaccine, which is still used on children. We see how she sacrificed almost everything for her dedication: a love life, kids, hobbies and virtually any pleasurable activities. She worked around the clock; traveled at a moment's notice when asked to study polio outbreaks all over the world; and was instrumental in the Russian study that validated Albert Sabin's polio vaccine.

As Cullen makes clear, many other strong women worked to defeat polio. Isabel Morgan's research created a vaccine that immunized monkeys from polio and was the basis for Jonas Salk’s vaccine. Elsie Ward discovered 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. 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 its subsequent use resulted in 40,000 cases of polio, killing many and paralyzing hundreds more. Sister Elizabeth Kenny 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, went on to work with Sabin as his statistician.

While THE WOMAN WITH THE CURE is a work of fiction, Cullen 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 through Dorothy’s eyes, 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 I’m not the only one who believed that the sole reason 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 we see a woman in a polio ward playing Candyland with the other patients, most of whom are children. Beautifully coiffed, wearing pearls and encased in an iron lung, she loses every single game she plays. Cullen tugs at our heartstrings as we see how she brings joy to others in the ward. She tells Dorothy that the game was created by a fellow patient, a California teacher who also 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 purely fictitious, he is based on some very real historical personages. According to Cullen, "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."

Cullen also explained why Arne is 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." After reading this detailed and extremely well-researched novel, you too will hope that Dorothy had a love life.

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 had a PhD in mathematics. She is emblematic of all the bright women during that time who were unable to really use their education and brains and could only 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, sympathizing with her frustration over the treatment she must endure at the hands of her mostly male colleagues, the little snubs and casual cruelties, and the heartbreaking fact that men could have their careers and a family while women could not. Thought-provoking, informative, and ultimately touching and filled with emotion, this novel will change the way that readers think about vaccines, medicine and the struggles of brilliant women in 20th-century America.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on March 3, 2023

The Woman with the Cure
by Lynn Cullen