Jonas Edward Salk (October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist. He discovered and developed the first successful inactivated polio vaccine. He was born in New York City to Jewish parents. Although they had little formal education, his parents were determined to see their children succeed. While attending New York University School of Medicine, Salk stood out from his peers, not just because of his academic prowess, but because he went into medical research instead of becoming a practicing physician.
As a child, Salk did not show any interest in medicine or science in general. He said 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."
At his mother's urging, he put aside aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and instead concentrated on classes necessary for admission to medical school. However, according to Oshinsky, the facilities at City College of New York were "barely second rate." There were no research laboratories. The library was inadequate. The faculty contained few noted scholars.
"What made the place special," he writes, "was the student body that had fought so hard to get there ... driven by their parents... From these ranks, of the 1930s and 1940s, emerged a wealth of intellectual talent, including more Nobel Prize winners—eight—and PhD recipients than any other public college except the University of California at Berkeley." Salk entered City College at the age of 15, a "common age for a freshman who had skipped multiple grades along the way."
During Salk's years at the New York University School of Medicine, he stood out from his peers, according to Bookchin, "not just because of his continued academic prowess—he was Alpha Omega Alpha, the Phi Beta Kappa Society of medical education—but because he had decided he did not want to practice medicine." Instead, he became absorbed in research, even taking a year off to study biochemistry.
He later focused more of his studies on bacteriology which had replaced medicine as his primary interest. He said his desire was to help humankind in general rather than single patients. And as Oshinsky writes, "it was the laboratory work, in particular, that gave new direction to his life."
Until 1957, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered the most frightening public health problem of the post-war United States. Annual epidemics were increasingly devastating. The 1952 epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children. The "public reaction was to a plague," said historian Bill O'Neal.
"Citizens of urban areas were to be terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned." According to a 2009 PBS documentary, "Apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio." As a result, scientists were in a frantic race to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was the world's most recognized victim of the disease and founded the organization, the March of Dimes Foundation, that would fund the development of a vaccine.
In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. Salk saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio, and, together with the skilled research team he assembled, devoted himself to this work for the next seven years.
The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine was, according to O'Neill, "the most elaborate program of its kind in history, involving 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers." Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial.
When news of the vaccine's success was made public on April 12, 1955, Salk was hailed as a "miracle worker," and the day "almost became a national holiday." His sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as rapidly as possible, with no interest in personal profit. When he was asked in a televised interview who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk replied: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which is today a center for medical and scientific research. Salk's last years were spent searching for a vaccine against HIV. His personal papers are stored at the University of California, San Diego Library.
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