Jonas Salk (1914 –1995)

Jonas Salk was almost two when the United States was hit with its first big polio epidemic. More than 27,000 people contracted the disease, with 6,000 deaths—more than 2,000 of them in New York City. Afflicted babies were taken from families who were then quarantined until the contagious period had passed. If the baby died, the family could not even attend the funeral. Each passing year brought a new epidemic. With each passing epidemic, the average age of the afflicted grew. By 1950, one-third of the victims were 15 and older. The 1952 epidemic was the worst; there were 57,628 victims, of whom 21,269 suffered varying degrees of paralysis and 3,145 died. In 1955, however, Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first effective vaccine against polio. He became an overnight celebrity. By the end of the century, it was estimated that Dr. Salk’s vaccine had prevented some 500,000 cases of polio paralysis. There were only 1,924 cases worldwide by 2002, most of them in third world countries.

Polio—the word spread fear to parents who guarded their infants against the unseen killer. The disease came with spring and warm weather. The virus entered the victim orally, replicating itself throughout the digestive tract. In most instances, the effects were minimal, but in some the virus migrated to the spinal column or brain where it destroyed nerves and motor function. But no one knew what caused polio or how to treat it. A child might go to bed with cold-like symptoms and wake up with chills and fever and weak legs. Then anxious parents would wait to see whether the disease would spread to arms and torso. People panicked. Public gatherings disappeared, movie theaters closed, attendance at amusement parks dwindled, and people avoided swimming pools and beaches.

The disease is as old as human civilization. Egyptian art depicts a figure with a crutch and withered leg. The Roman Emperor Claudius may have contracted it. Sir Walter Scott was probably a victim in 1773. Known by a number of names, it randomly struck the rich and poor indiscriminately. Reported cases were random until the 20th century when the epidemics appeared. Usually concentrated in cities, the disease struck its victims throughout the summer and into the fall when cooler weather brought relief.

Unlike others who know their life’s work when they are young, Dr. Salk lacked that sense of direction. “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,” Dr. Salk said in an interview for the Academy of Achievement. Few scientists could be more altruistic than Dr. Salk. Part of his decision to forego a medical practice to pursue research was his desire to help a greater number of people. And help them he did. When Edward R. Murrow asked him in a 1954 interview who owned the patent on his polio vaccine, he replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first effective vaccine against polio in 1955 as the paralyzing disease took on epidemic proportions in the United States. He became an overnight celebrity and saved thousands of lives.

Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the first effective vaccine against polio in 1955 as the paralyzing disease took on epidemic proportions in the United States. He became an overnight celebrity and saved thousands of lives. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While Dr. Salk had the satisfaction of seeing the results of his life’s work, he was overwhelmed with the publicity it brought. “Young man, a great tragedy has befallen you. You’ve lost your anonymity,” Murrow told him. Murrow was right. Everywhere he went he was given celebrity status. Letters, gifts, and money poured in, yet Dr. Salk kept it in perspective. He mandated that all money be turned over to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis; expensive gifts would be sold and the proceeds given to the Foundation; and letters would be answered if possible. Furthermore, all business deals, book offers, and movie deals would be refused. Years later, Dr. Salk reflected on the changes to his life. “It’s brought me enormous gratification, opened many opportunities, but at the same time placed many burdens on me. It altered my career, my relationships with colleagues; I am a public figure, no longer one of them.”

Jonas Salk was born to Daniel and Dora Salk, Russian Jewish immigrants. When he was 13, he entered Townsend High School, a public school for the gifted. While his mother wanted him to be a rabbi, Jonas thought about a career in law before settling on medicine. From the beginning, he knew he wanted to pursue medical research instead of working in a private practice. Entering City College of New York at the age of 15, he graduated in 1934 and enrolled in the Medical School of New York University. Salk took an extra year to complete the program as he took time off to study biochemistry. In his senior year, he took a two-month elective to work with Dr. Thomas Francis who had just discovered the type B flu virus. Dr. Francis would remain an important figure throughout his career.

While he was in medical school, he met the woman, Donna Lindsay, who would become his wife. Salk’s biggest problem was her father, a wealthy dentist who wanted to be sure his daughter married the right man. Before they could marry, he said, Salk must complete medical school and give himself a middle name, something his parents had thought unnecessary.

The day after he graduated, Dr. Salk married Donna Lindsay. He completed his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital working with Dr. Francis. Mount Sinai was—and is—very selective. Of the 250 applicants, only 12 were selected. While his main interest was research, he demonstrated excellent ability as a surgeon and clinician. His quick mind, knowledge, and intuition served him well. On one occasion, when a man was wheeled into the emergency room where Dr. Salk was on duty, he caught the smell of acetone. Immediately, he recognized the symptom of a diabetic coma, a diagnosis that proved to be true.

When Dr. Salk’s internship was over in 1942, he faced a dilemma. He could not stay at Mount Sinai since the hospital did not hire its own interns. Furthermore, many of the institutions where he applied had Jewish quotas. The United States had just entered World War II and Dr. Salk considered enlisting as a military physician, but Dr. Francis changed his mind. Francis had moved to the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health where he was working on a flu vaccine under an Army contract. He invited Dr. Salk to join him there, pointing out that he could help more soldiers in a program with wide-reaching results than he could as a battlefield doctor. Dr. Salk was pleased to accept the offer. The two doctors were committed to developing a vaccine based on a dead virus. By the fall of 1943, they had refined a vaccine, which Dr. Salk successfully administered to army volunteers.

By now Dr. Salk was confident enough to want his own lab. After several rejections, he was offered a position at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He could have his own lab Dean William McEllroy promised him. The lab turned out to be the basement of the old Municipal Hospital. More space could be available, but he had to convince professors to give it up. Funding was available, too, but he had to help solicit grants.

In 1948, the Salk lab received a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of polio types. With his interest in virology and his success with the influenza vaccine, Dr. Salk took up the challenge to find a vaccine for polio. While Dr. Salk was pursuing his quest, research was also underway at other locations. Vaccines could be made using live or dead viruses. In either case, the object was to induce the production of antibodies that would provide immunity from the disease, but the live virus posed more risk. While the live virus was weakened to prevent the full-blown disease while building immunity, sometimes a virus would go rogue and multiple, causing the disease it was supposed to prevent. Not all vaccines and treatments were successful. Several vaccines using live viruses resulted in infections and deaths among the children who were the test subjects. Dr. Salk remained committed to building his vaccine with a dead virus. Working with Dr. Francis, he had successfully created a dead virus vaccine against influenza and he intended to do the same with a polio vaccine.

Money to fund research is always a problem, but as the annual epidemics grew, money began to flow. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was founded in 1938 by Basil O’Conner, President Roosevelt’s former law partner. Beginning the March of Dimes, the NFIP raised millions to fund victims’ rehabilitation and research on vaccines. One of the main research recipients was the Salk lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Salk built his lab and team of scientists and threw himself into the task of developing a dead vaccine. This placed him in direct competition with Dr. Albert Sabin who was working at the Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati to develop a live virus vaccine. While scientists recognized three strains of polio, Sabin was convinced there were subtypes. “I note your continued enthusiasm for the notion that there may exist subtypes of poliomyelitis virus. After working with influenza viruses in which the existence of subtypes was quite clear, I am quite unimpressed by the difference among poliomyelitis viruses indicating the existence of subtypes,” Dr. Salk wrote. Sabin took every opportunity he could to discredit Dr. Salk’s vaccine. He spoke disparagingly to the American Medical Association; his testimony before a Congressional committee was critical. It appeared that his criticisms were as much about being the first as they were about producing an effective, safe vaccine. The Salk team worked round the clock, seven days a week. When he finally perfected his vaccine, Dr. Salk, his family, and a handful of volunteers received the vaccination first.

To analyze the results of what would be the largest field trial ever, the NFIP turned to Dr. Francis, Dr. Salk’s former professor and mentor. At first, Dr. Francis hesitated, but when he was satisfied that the testing would be done by rigorous scientific standards, he accepted the position. One million eight hundred thousand school children participated in the year-long test. Each child received a series of shots and gave blood samples to test for antibodies. On April 12, 1955, 10 years to the day from President Roosevelt’s death, the results of the test were announced. “In placebo-controlled areas the poliomyelitis vaccination was 68 percent effective against Type I, 100 percent effective against Type II, and 92 percent effective against Type III,” Dr. Francis announced. “The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”

The nation clamored for the vaccine, and there were shortages as contracted pharmaceutical companies hastened to produce the vaccine. The only serious setback in the program was the “Cutter Incident.” Cutter Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company in Berkeley, California, inadvertently released a bad batch of vaccines, one of which contained live virus. As a result there were 56 cases of polio resulting in five deaths. In spite of that setback, the Salk vaccine was wildly successful.

Dr. Salk was the toast of the nation, indeed, the world. He and his family met with President Eisenhower in the Rose Garden. He turned down a ticker tape parade in New York City. There were calls to make April 12 a national holiday. He received the prestigious Lasker Award, a Congressional Gold Medal, and more honors from around the world. Even into the 1980s, the nation continued to honor Dr. Salk. By a Congressional Resolution and a Presidential Proclamation, May 6, 1985, was declared to be Jonas Salk Day. “This year we observe the 30th anniversary of the licensing and manufacturing of the vaccine discovered by this great American. Even before another successful vaccine was discovered, Dr. Salk’s discovery had reduced polio and its effect by 97 percent. Today, polio is not a familiar disease to younger Americans, and many have difficulty appreciating the magnitude of the disorder that the Salk vaccine virtually wiped from the face of the Earth.” Paradoxically, Dr. Salk never received a Nobel Prize for his achievement. Nevertheless, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had accomplished his primary objective when he entered the medical profession—helping people.

Dr. Salk continued his efforts to refine the vaccine; Dr. Sabin continued to criticize it. For the remainder of the decade, Dr. Salk perfected his vaccine. Then he turned his attention to opening a center for scientists to engage in various aspects of biological research where he and other scientists could research AIDS, cancer, and other ailments. He settled on San Diego for its location, and in 1963 the Dr. Salk Institute for Biological Studies opened.

Dr. Sabin continued the development of his live virus vaccine. Since the United States was not ready for another massive field test, he took his vaccine to the Soviet Union where it was successfully tested.

The lifework of Dr. Salk is best summed up by President Carter’s words when he presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. “Because of Dr. Jonas E. Salk, our country is free from the cruel epidemics of poliomyelitis that once struck almost yearly. Because of his tireless work, untold hundreds of thousands who might have been crippled are sound in body today. These are Doctor Salk’s true honors, and there is no way to add to them.”

—Tom and Gena Metcalf


Kluger, Jeffrey. Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.

Oshinsky, David M. Polio: An American Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.