See and hear Dr. Jonas Salk discuss his life and work in an interview for the television show, Open Mind, streaming in 256k MPEG 4, free from the Internet Archive. For more information and format choices, click here.
During his life he worked in New York, Michigan, Pittsburgh and California. In his later career, Salk devoted much energy toward the development of an an AIDS vaccine.
Salk did not seek wealth or fame through his innovations, famously stating, "Who owns my polio vaccine? The people! Could you patent the sun?"
Jonas E. Salk was born in New York City to a family of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, Dora and Daniel B. Salk. He graduated from the City College of New York with a B.Sc., and then received his medical degree from the College of Medicine at New York University in June 1939.
While at college he met his future wife, Donna Lindsay Calfin, whom he married on June 9, 1939. They had three children: Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan. In 1968, they divorced, and in 1970 Salk married Françoise Gilot.
After graduating, Salk first worked as a staff physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. In 1947, he moved to Pittsburgh, where he led the Virus Research lab at the University of Pittsburgh. During the 1950s, he developed, tested, and refined the first successful polio vaccine. In 1955 he began immunizations at Pittsburgh's Arsenal Elementary School in the Lawrenceville neighborhood and made international news as the man who beat polio.
In 1962, Salk struck out on his own, leaving the University of Pittsburgh and establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where the major focus of study was molecular biology and genetics. The first faculty included many distinguished members such as Jacob Bronowski and Francis Crick.
Jonas Salk directed the institute until his retirement in 1985. Salk died in La Jolla at the age of 80.
During his life, he received many awards and honours: The Lasker Award (1956), The Bruce Memorial Award (1958), The Jawaharlal Nehru Award (1975), Congressional Gold Medal of Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977).
As a child, Salk did not show any interest in medicine or science in general. He says in an interview with the Academy of Achievement:
As a child I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that. That's what motivates me. And in a way, it's the human dimension that has intrigued me.
His first desire was to become a lawyer and only due to his mother's persuasion (which included her telling him he wouldn’t be good at it), he changed from a pre-law student to a pre-med student. During his first year in medical school, he was offered the chance to do research and teach biochemistry. He recalls this experience in the previously mentioned interview:
At one point at the end of my first year of medical school, I received an opportunity to spend a year in research and teaching in biochemistry, which I did. And at the end of that year, I was told I could, if I wished, switch and get a Ph.D. in biochemistry but my preference was to stay with medicine. And I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.
While attending NY Medical College, he heard two lectures that would change his life forever. Salk reflected on the lectures in 1990:
In the first lecture, we were told that it was possible to immunize against diphtheria and tetanus by the use of a chemically treated toxin [to kill it]... In the very next lecture, we were told that in order to immunize against a virus disease it was necessary to go through the experience of infection. It was not possible to kill the virus... The light went on at that point. I said that those two statements can’t possibly both be true. One has to be false.
In 1938, while still at the college, Salk began working with Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. on an influenza vaccine. In 1941, Francis was appointed the head of the epidemiology department at the newly formed School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, and Salk, who in 1942 won a research fellowship, followed him. Together they worked to develop an influenza vaccine at the behest of the U.S. Army. Salk advanced to the position of assistant professor of epidemiology and continued his work on virology.
In 1947, Salk received a position at the University of Pittsburgh, as the head of the Virus Research lab. Though he continued his research on improving the influenza vaccine, he set his sights on the Poliomyelitis virus. The poliovirus initially attacks the nervous system and within a few hours of infection, paralysis can occur. The death rate of the disease is about 5-10%. Death usually occurs when the breathing muscles become paralyzed. Polio was sometimes hard to diagnose because of its flu-like symptoms, which include stiff neck, fever, and headache.
At that time, it was believed that immunity can come only after the body has survived at least a mild infection by live virus. In contrast, Salk observed that it is possible to acquire immunity through contact with inactivated (killed) virus. Using formaldehyde, Salk killed the poliovirus, but kept it intact enough to trigger the necessary immune response. Salk's research caught the attention of Basil O'Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation). The organization decided to fund Salk's efforts to develop a killed virus vaccine.
The vaccine was first tested in monkeys, and then in patients at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children. After successful tests, in 1952, Salk tested his vaccine on volunteering parties, including himself, the laboratory staff, his wife, and his children. In 1954, national testing began on one million children, ages six to nine, who became known as the Polio Pioneers. This was one of the first double-blind tests, which has since become standard: half of the treated received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. One-third of the children, who lived in areas where vaccine was not available, were observed in order to evaluate the background level of polio in this age group. On April 12, 1955, the results were announced: the vaccine was safe and effective. The patient would develop immunity to the live disease due to the body's earlier reaction to the killed virus.
The vaccine was instrumental in the near eradication of a once widely-feared disease. Polio’s outbreak in 1916 left 6000 dead and 27,000 paralyzed. In 1952, 57,628 cases were recorded. After the vaccine became available, polio cases in the U.S. dropped by 85-90 percent in only two years. In 1979, only 10 cases were reported.
In a separate development, Albert Sabin had been working since 1952 on a "live" vaccine. It could be taken orally and had been used in Eastern bloc countries since 1957.
Dr. Salk's last years were spent searching for a vaccine against AIDS. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995. He was 80 years old.
Only one member of the team that developed the Polio vaccine is still alive: Julius S. Youngner, a microbiologist who has spent 56 years working at The University of Pittsburgh.
Youngner said he felt insulted and betrayed when Salk did not acknowledge his lab colleagues during his famous speech at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955. That was the day the world learned the polio vaccine worked. Salk thanked everyone but his own team.
Reknown scientist Roger Revelle felt animosity toward Salk even years after the Salk Institute received a prime piece of San Diego real estate that Revelle felt should have gone to the fledgling University of California, San Diego campus. "Jonas decided that he wanted the best piece of land that we had," Revelle said in 1985. "Of course, it was much more important to get Salk here than to get the University here. He is a folk hero, even though he is... not very bright."