Born October 28, 1914
New York City, New York, USA
Died June 23, 1995
La Jolla, California, USA
Religion Humanist
Edward Salk (October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was an American
physician and researcher, best known for the development of the first
polio vaccine (the eponymous Salk vaccine).
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 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 Townsend Harris High School
and then went to 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, the
former mistress of Pablo Picasso.
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
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
two million children, ages six to nine, who became known as the Polio
Pioneers. This was one of the first double-blind placebo-controlled
tests, which has since become standard: half of the treated received
the vaccine, and half received a placebo, where neither the individuals
nor the researchers know who belongs to the control group and the experimental
group. 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
Salk's 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.
The last indigenous case of polio in the U.S. was reported in 1991.
Dr. Salk's last
years were spent searching for a vaccine against AIDS. According to
the March of Dimes, Dr. Salk informed them that he had developed a vaccination
for the disease that was still in the testing stages. He administered
this to his son, Peter, as he had with the Polio vaccine. Merck &
Co., Inc. later purchased the experimental antibody.
Jonas Salk died
on June 23, 1995. He was 80 years old at the time of his death.
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.
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."
Developer of Polio
Jonas Salk Date
of birth: October 28, 1914
Date of death: June 23, 1995
In America in the
1950s, summertime was a time of fear and anxiety for many parents; this
was the season when children by the thousands became infected with the
crippling disease poliomyelitis, or polio. This burden of fear was lifted
forever when it was announced that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine
against the disease. Salk became world-famous overnight, but his discovery
was the result of many years of painstaking research.
was born in New
York City. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who, although
they themselves lacked formal education, were determined to see their
children succeed, and encouraged them to study hard. Jonas Salk was
the first member of his family to go to college. He entered the City
College of New York intending to study law, but soon became intrigued
by medical science.
medical school at New York University, Salk was invited to spend a year
researching influenza. The virus that causes flu had only recently been
discovered and the young Salk was eager to learn if the virus could
be deprived of its ability to infect, while still giving immunity to
the illness. Salk succeeded in this attempt, which became the basis
of his later work on polio.
medical school and his internship, Salk returned to the study of influenza,
the flu virus. World War II had begun, and public health experts feared
a replay of the flu epidemic that had killed millions in the wake of
the First World War. The development of vaccines controlled the spread
of flu after the war and the epidemic of 1919 did not recur.
In 1947, Salk accepted
an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. While
working there, with he National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,
Salk saw an opportunity to develop a vaccine against polio, and devoted
himself to this work for the next eight years.
In 1955 Salk's
years of research paid off. Human trials of the polio vaccine effectively
protected the subject from the polio virus. When news of the discovery
was made public on April 12, 1955, Salk was hailed as a miracle worker.
He further endeared himself to the public by refusing to patent the
vaccine. He had no desire to profit personally from the discovery, but
merely wished to see the vaccine disseminated as widely as possible.
Salk's vaccine was
composed of "killed" polio virus, which retained the ability
to immunize without running the risk of infecting the patient. A few
years later, a vaccine made from live polio virus was developed, which
could be administered orally, while Salk's vaccine required injection.
Further, there was some evidence that the "killed" vaccine
failed to completely immunize the patient. In the U.S., public health
authorities elected to distribute the "live" oral vaccine
instead of Salk's. Tragically, the preparation of live virus infected
some patients with the disease, rather than immunizing them. Since the
introduction of the original vaccine, the few new cases of polio reported
in the United States were probably caused by the "live" vaccine
which was intended to prevent them.
In countries where
Salk's vaccine has remained in use, the disease has been virtually eradicated.
In 1963, Salk
founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, an innovative
center for medical and scientific research. Jonas Salk continued to
conduct research and publish books, some written in collaboration with
one or more of his sons, who are also medical scientists.
books include Man Unfolding (1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973),
World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981), and Anatomy
of Reality (1983).
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.