A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Jonas Salk
1914 - 1995

Jonas Salk is among the most venerated medical scientists of the century. Though his first words were reported to be "dirt, dirt," his early thoughts were not on studying germs but on going into law. He became interested in biology and chemistry, however, and decided to go into research. He went to New York University medical school for training. There in 1938 he began working with microbiologist Thomas Francis, Jr., who was looking for an influenza vaccine. They developed one that was used in the armed forces during World War II.

In 1947 Salk became the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. He worked on improving the flu vaccine and began to study poliovirus with hopes of creating a vaccine against that disease, as well. Salk applied findings from many other scientists to this problem. From some he found a way to produce large quantities of the virus; from others a way to kill the virus with formaldehyde so that it remained intact enough to cause a response in humans. In 1952 he first innoculated volunteers, including himself, his wife, and their three sons, with a polio vaccine made from this killed virus. Everyone who received the test vaccine began producing antibodies to the disease, yet no one became ill. The vaccine seemed safe and effective. The following year he published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and nationwide testing was carried out. Since the turn of the century, polio outbreaks had grown more frequent and more devastating. In 1952, some estimates recorded 57,628 cases, making it the worst year yet. People were very anxious for a breakthrough against polio. Salk's former mentor Thomas Francis, Jr., directed the mass vaccination of schoolchildren.

The success of the vaccination effort won Jonas Salk unsought fame. The March of Dimes, hoping to boost publicity and donations to fund vaccination programs, lionized Salk to the point of offending his colleagues. He had applied the findings of others in a successful bid to prevent disease. Other researchers and doctors grumbled that he hadn't found anything new; he had just applied what was there. But the timing of his successful vaccine at the peak of polio's devastation made the public blind to that.

Salk's vaccine was soon replaced by a variation developed by Albert Sabin that could be taken orally. There were pros and cons to each, but the oral vaccination won out. In 1963, still somewhat alienated from the medical community, Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California. "I couldn't possibly have become a member of this institute if I hadn't founded it myself," he said. Jonas Salk died of congestive heart failure in 1995.

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