When summertime rolled around in the 1950s, children looked forward to swimming, vacations and sleeping late in the morning while their schoolbooks collected dust on the shelves of quiet classrooms. These same summer months, while providing fun for kids, filled their parents’ minds with fearful concerns. It was during these same months thousands of children were overcome by a horrid crippling disease – poliomyelitis (polio). Thankfully, the solution to the problem had been born on October 28, 1914.
The son of Ashkenazi Jewish Russian immigrants, Jonas Edward Salk was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His father supported the family working in a garment factory. Though the family was not rich, the Salk parents encouraged Jonas and his brothers to strive to reach their full potential.
A shy individual by nature, Jonas was by no means standoffish. Playing stickball with the neighborhood kids, Jonas was the one normally called upon to moderate disputes and act as umpire. Instead of considering the situation a reason to be upset, he instead saw it as a problem to be solved.
An excellent student, Salk busied himself reading everything he could get his hands on. Any book to find itself within his radar was thoroughly investigated for its content, regardless the topic. At this time in life, a special interest in science had not yet revealed itself; instead, Salk’s major interest centered on the classics.
By age sixteen, Salk was ready for college, but the family’s ability to pay was non-existent. His scholastic record earned him a place in the freshman class of College of the City of New York (C.C.N.Y.). The only requirement for acceptance was a high scholastic average. No tuition was charged. Jonas Salk excelled in the institution’s educational environment.
During his first year at C.C.N.Y., Salk discovered his life’s work during a freshman science course. The summers which followed found him working as a laboratory technician and devising his own course of study. Salk’s devotion to these efforts captured the attention of his professors. Sharing with them his desire to become a research scientist, Salk was advised to increase his background in basic science. Following the advice he was offered, Salk took a year long sabbatical from medical school and immersed himself in an intensive study of chemistry.
From here, he branched out into researching influenza viruses. While studying influenza, Salk was under the tutorage of Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. Dr. Francis would later be one of those who sat in judgment on Salk’s most important work. During this time, his research techniques won him a number of fellowships, which provided the funds needed to pay for the remainder of his formal medical training.
Salk was later questioned as to why he pursued research fellowships rather than the more lucrative practice of medicine. To this he replied, “Why did Mozart compose music?” Salk did not enter the field of medicine with the intent of acquiring a lucrative income. Instead, he was a scientist whose interest lay in the field of medicine with an emphasis in research.
During World War II, Salk followed Dr. Francis to Ann Arbor, Michigan when Francis was given charge of the medical department at the University of Michigan. While American troops were involved with conflicts on battlefields around the world, Salk’s battlefield was found in the laboratory with disease the enemy to be conquered.
The enemy Salk sought to eliminate was microscopic in size, no more than a millionth of an inch, but just as deadly as the bullets and bombs on the battlefield. By studying influenza, Salk sought to eradicate the possibility of repeat epidemics which had been responsible for killing thousands of people during World War I. His goal was to create a vaccine which, when injected into the body, would work with the body’s own capability to create antibodies, and offer protection against the flu.
In 1947, the University of Pittsburgh’s virus research program was expanded and Dr. Salk was named director. Here he continued with his associates to perfect an influenza vaccine. The following year, their attention was pointed in a different direction. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was instrumental in helping polio victims and sponsoring research, having been created in 1938 by FDR. The head of the organization, Basil O’Connor, approached Salk’s laboratory and three others about the need for a vaccine to combat the disease. Within a three year timeframe, it was learned three distinct forms of polio virus existed. For a vaccine to work, it would be necessary for the vaccine to conquer all three forms.
In 1949, Dr. John Enders at Children’s Medical Center in Boston discovered a method by which the deadly polio virus could be grown in a test tube. His discovery won him and his team a Nobel Prize. Now that a tool had been created to use for the vaccine, the next question was how to use it. Dr. Salk’s response was to chemically kill the virus to be used in the vaccine, due to the success he achieved with his influenza research. Another group of medical researchers, however, had a different approach – an attenuated vaccine. Instead of killing the virus, their process weakened it. O’Connor felt all avenues should be explored in an effort to bring a successful vaccine to the public in the shortest amount of time. Dr. Salk received a number of grants and funds to help build a staff and pay research expenses.
In the laboratory, Salk’s team grew all three varieties of polio virus, then killed them by mixing the virus with formaldehyde. The vaccine was injected into a number of monkeys and proved successful in creating antibodies which protected the monkeys from the disease. When questioned about the how the research process worked, Salk compared it to a baker attempting to create a new style of cake. “She starts with an idea and certain ingredients. Then she experiments – a little more of this, a little less of that – and keeps changing things until she has a good recipe.”
Now that the ‘recipe’ was created and good results were found to occur in monkeys, the next step was to test the effectiveness on humans. Before he did, however, Salk wanted to be certain the vaccine was totally safe, with no conceivable side-effects. The first people to have the vaccine administered were children at the D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children in Lettsdale, PA. These kids had already developed polio and were now immune to at least one form of the disease. He chose these children for testing with the thought that if something went wrong; they would not get polio again, while still proving whether or not the vaccine would help produce more polio antibodies. Though the chances of the children having problems were slight, the process still played havoc with Salk’s nerves. “When you inoculate children with a polio vaccine, you don’t sleep well for two or three months.” Thankfully the results were an overwhelming success.
The victory earned in the first trial moved Salk to the next step. It was now time to test non-polio individuals with the vaccine. The first recipients in this test were members of his own family. This too proved successful and by October 1953, Salk was totally convinced he had an effective vaccine to protect against the ill effects of polio.
In November, Basil O’Connor made it known that as soon as adequate vaccine supplies were obtained, a large-scale test would begin. Starting on April 26, 1954, the study began with 1,829,916 children taking part. With the help of 20,000 doctors, 40,000 nurses, 50,000 teachers and 200,000 adult volunteers, the children of the Baby Boom generation became involved in the greatest mass test ever known for a medical discovery. The question to now be answered was, “Will it work?”
On April 12, 1955 at 10:20 a.m., Dr. Francis entered the auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan to read his report. He spent one hour and forty minutes broadcasting the entirety of the scientific details of the research while everyone awaited the bottom line – Dr. Salk’s anti-polio vaccine was a success and if used properly, could stamp out polio. There were those in the audience, however, who were not totally sold on the idea and needed additional convincing.
Though some reservations in acceptance still existed, Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, Oveta Culp Hobby, approved the large-scale manufacture of the vaccine. Drug companies now hurried to turn out vast quantities and Dr. Jonas Salk became a national hero as the man who had conquered polio.
A few weeks later, it suddenly appeared that which glitters is not always gold. An emergency arose as several cases of polio occurred in children who were recently immunized. The program was temporarily shut down as laboratories and medical conferences worked fervently to discover the problem. During all this, Dr. Salk maintained his composure due to being convinced he was right. Within the next few months, Salk’s research and vaccines were vindicated. The problem did not lie with Dr. Salk and his research, but instead with the drug-manufacturing plants. In their haste to produce the vaccine, carelessness resulted in an ineffective product being released; thus, new safeguards were adopted and the mass vaccinations resumed.
On April 12, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson summoned Dr. Jonas Salk to the White House. Salk was congratulated by not only Johnson, but also Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry. During 1964, only 121 new cases of polio had been diagnosed throughout the United States. In 1952, the worst year prior to release of the vaccine, 58,000 new polio cases were diagnosed. Dr. Terry remarked, “This represents a historic triumph of preventative medicine.”
In 1966, Dr. Salk was referred to by the New York Times as the “Father of Biophilosophy.” Journalist and author Howard Taubman, stated, “he never forgets… there is a vast amount of darkness for man to penetrate. As a biologist, he believes that his science is on the frontier of tremendous new discoveries; and as a philosopher, he is convinced that humanists and artists have joined the scientists to achieve an understanding of man in all his physical, mental and spiritual complexity. Such interchanges might lead, he would hope, to a new and important school of thinkers he would designate as biophilosophers.” Salk’s own definition of “biophilosophy” was “the application of a biological, evolutionary point of view to philosophical, cultural, social and psychological problems.”
Though Salk’s success had a tremendous effect on the health of millions of children, there were those in the medical profession who considered him a somewhat controversial figure and sought to minimize his contributions to the field of medicine. A few years following Salk’s polio vaccines being released on the market, Dr. Albert B. Sabin successfully created an attenuated vaccine which was more easily administered. Rather than requiring an injection, this vaccine was placed on a sugar cube and given orally. Never-the-less, the love and respect of the world and countless parents and children still belonged to Dr. Jonas Salk, the man who first conquered polio.
In 1960, Salk established the Salk Institute of Biological Science in La Jolla, California. Here he looked forward to accomplishing new challenges. As he continued his research, he published a number of books – Man Unfolding(1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973), World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981), and Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason (1983).
Dr. Salk’s last years were spent searching for a vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Beginning in the mid 1980s, Salk co-founded the Immune Response Corporation with Kevin Kimberlin, to search for a vaccine. He also patented Remune®, an immune-based therapy. The AIDS vaccine project was discontinued in 2007, twelve years following the death of Jonas Salk on June 23, 1995.