Humanity is truly fortunate that Jonas Salk, a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, choose medicine over his original goal of becoming an attorney.  Or perhaps we should thank his mother, who never thought he would be a good lawyer!  Whatever the final motivation, love of medicine or a mother’s desire for her son to be a doctor, Jonas Salk started down a path that would save many people from the devastating disease of Polio.
Jonas Salk’s story started in New York City in the year 1914.  He and his younger siblings (two brothers and one sister) were encouraged to take their studies seriously and do the best they could.  After completing high school, the young Salk entered City College of New York.  He was the first one in his family on both his mother’s side and his father’s side to go to college.
While in medical school, Jonas listened to two lectures which contradicted one another.  That got him thinking about whether you could immunize someone by using a live virus, but safely, without infecting the patient with the disease.  An opportunity to get an answer to that question came in his final year of medical school while spending time in a laboratory studying the influenza virus.  Jonas developed a flu vaccine some years later, and this set the groundwork for his eventual work on polio.  The flu vaccine that Jonas developed was no mere idle interest, because it helped the U.S. Army in its quest to win World War II!

In 1947 Jonas took the opportunity to go to Pittsburgh to continue his influenza work while also beginning his study of the polio (poliomyelitis) viruses.  Salk worked with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis while at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and was the head of the Virus Research Lab. At the time, the polio virus affected approximately 25,000 people annually and in some years many more than that.  It was highly contagious.  The virus caused paralysis by getting into the spinal cord of the infected person.  Though it took eight years of hard work and the assistance of many colleagues, Jonas Salk finally announced the creation of a vaccine made from a dead virus rather than using a weakened form of the disease.  To Jonas, it only made sense to eliminate the risk of infection by using a dead virus, though it was certainly not the accepted approach to take at the time. When the announcement came in 1955, Salk received quite a bit of attention due to the extreme public fear around the virus.  No one knew who or where it was going to strike.  People often moved their families, sometimes to other countries, in the hope of escaping the virus.  But there was no safe place.

Since the development of the vaccine, polio has been basically eradicated in the countries where the Salk vaccine has been in use. Jonas Salk founded the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in 1963.  Salk’s three sons have followed their father into the practice of medicine despite his initial attempts to discourage them from going into this field.  The youngest son is a psychiatrist while the two older sons are more involved in research.  Salk’s wife, Francoise, is an artist;he looked upon their marriage as very rewarding.  Salk often thought of his work as a scientist much like the work of an artist, both requiring creativity and being more of a “calling” than a job.  His years after he left Pittsburgh were spent writing books about the nature of evolution and human life, conducting research, and searching for a vaccine for AIDS.  Jonas Salk lived until the age of 80 and died on June 23, 1995, of congestive heart failure. Salk felt that it was necessary to have a purpose in life.  With the work he did, he saved many from the devastating effects of polio and many from living in constant fear of this dreaded virus.  He truly left this world better than he found it.


Written by Diane Gliozzi