Jonas Salk Biography
Born: October 28, 1914
New York, New York
Died: June 23, 1995
La Jolla, California
American immunologist and virologist
The American physician, virologist (scientist who studies viruses), and immunologist (medical scientist concerned with the structure and function of the immune system, the body's resistance to infection) Jonas Salk developed the first effective poliomyelitis (polio) vaccine.
Reproduced by permission of
AP/Wide World Photos.
Early years and education
Jonas Edward Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914, the oldest of three sons of Daniel and Dora Salk. The family moved to the Bronx, New York, shortly after Jonas's birth. As a child he was thin and small and did not do well at sports, although he was an excellent student. With his mother's encouragement, he had a sense as a child that when he grew up he would "make a difference" by doing something significant.
Salk graduated from Townsend Harris High School, a school for exceptional students. He studied hard, read everything he could lay his hands on, and always got good grades. At the age of sixteen Salk entered the College of the City of New York to study law. He subsequently changed his mind and decided instead to pursue medicine. In 1934 he enrolled in the College of Medicine of New York University, from which he graduated in 1939. Salk worked at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital from 1940 to 1942, when he went to the University of Michigan. There he helped develop an influenza (flu) vaccine. In 1944 he was appointed research associate in epidemiology (the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease), and in 1946 he was made assistant professor.
In 1947 Salk accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh as associate professor of bacteriology (the study of bacteria, one-celled organisms that can cause disease). There he carried out his research on a polio vaccine. Polio vaccines had been attempted before but without success. Until 1949 it was not known that there were three distinct types of polio viruses.
This discovery provided a starting point for Salk. Working under a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, he prepared a killed-virus vaccine effective against all three types. Testing began in 1950, and the preliminary report on the vaccine's effectiveness was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1953. National field trials were held in 1954, and in 1955 the vaccine was determined safe for general use.
The Salk vaccine is made by cultivating (growing) three strains of the virus separately, then killing it by applying a strong chemical called formaldehyde. Tests are then performed to make certain the virus is dead. A series of three or four injections is required to make someone immune.
Problems with the Salk vaccine
Acceptance of the vaccine was not without problems. Salk was criticized because a glaring Hollywood-like promotion was undertaken for the vaccine. Also, some medical colleagues favored a live-virus vaccine. The live-virus vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin (1906–1993) contained a mutant (altered, different) form of the polio virus, called an avirulent virus. This means it was not able to harm the body's defenses. The live-virus vaccine had advantages over the killed-virus vaccine. It could be administered orally (through the mouth) rather than by injection, and one dosage gave permanent immunity.
The biggest problem with the Salk vaccine was that improper production of the vaccine by some drug companies resulted in the vaccine being contaminated with live polio virus. Many hundreds of children died or became extremely ill because of this.
Salk, during his polio researches, was made research professor of bacteriology at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (1949–1954) and professor of preventive medicine (1954–1957). In 1957 he was named Commonwealth professor of experimental medicine.
In 1963 he opened the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. There he and his colleagues studied problems relating to the body's autoimmunization reaction; that is, why the body rejects foreign material, for example, an organ transplant.
Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, in La Jolla, California, at the age of eighty from heart failure. In his lifetime he was able to see the effects of his life's work. By the time Salk died, polio had virtually disappeared from the United States.
For More Information
Barter, James. Jonas Salk. San Diego: Lucent, Gale, 2002.
Carter, Richard. Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk. New York: Trident Press, 1966.
Curson, Marjorie. Jonas Salk. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1990.
McPherson, Stephanie Sammartino. Jonas Salk: Conquering Polio. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2002.
Naden, Corinne J., and Rose Blue. Jonas Salk: Polio Pioneer. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2001.
Tocci, Salvatore. Jonas Salk: Creator of the Polio Vaccine. Berkeley Heights, NJ : Enslow, 2002.
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From the beginning of mankind, man has looked for cures of illness. Jonas Salk found a
cure for one of the worst illnesses in the history of man, polio. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine
was a great discovery of his time, and it is still being used today to eradicate polio
worldwide. Dr. Salk is also known for other medical discoveries. He was a quiet man
who lived a rough childhood. He was not looking for fame, instead, it found him. During
the time before the vaccine, many people, mostly parents with young children, were very
scared. Dr. Salk's vaccine was a great relief to everyone. Yet, today polio is still affecting
people, even after receiving the vaccine. Just as polio is still around today, so is the flu
virus. Dr. Salk did invent a flu vaccine to help in keeping the flu virus at a low. At this
time, Jonas Salk is working on a vaccine for the most feared disease of today, AIDS.
Jonas Edward Salk was born to Polish-Jewish immigrants, Daniel B. and Dora
Salk, on October 28, 1914. Dr. Salk was born in upper Manhattan, but then moved to
the Bronx where he went to school. "His first spoken words were, 'Dirt, dirt,' instead of
the conventional, uninspired 'No, no' or 'Momma.' He was a responsive child." Dr. Salk
was "raised on the verge of poverty." Although his family was poor, he did do
exceptionally well in all the levels of education. He graduated from Townsend Harris
High School in 1929 and then went on to the College of the City of New York where he
received his B.S. in 1934. He finally earned his M.D. degree in June of 1939 from the
New York University College of Medicine. Jonas Salk was "a somewhat withdrawn and
indistinct figure" but was always reading whatever he could lay his hands on. Dr. Salk
went on to intern for two years at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He then moved on
to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a research professor in the Department of
Epidemology. It was here that he found a vaccine for influenza, commonly called the flu,
while he worked with Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. In 1947, when the University of Pittsburgh
expanded, he went to work there with a part in his contract that said he could go back to
Ann Arbor if things didn't work out, no questions asked. At this school he became what
he is known as today, a bacteriologist. It was here that he developed the polio
vaccination. Dr. Salk then left his field of endeavor because of all the fame and ridicule
from his colleagues. In 1963, Jonas Salk set up the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in
La Jolla, California. This facility was made possible through funds from the March of
Dimes. At this time, he is eighty years old and working on a cure for AIDS.
"Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is an acute viral infection." Polio is the
"inflammation of the gray anterior matter of the spinal cord." The inflammation would
destroy the nerve cells. As a result of the lost nerve cells, the muscles that those nerve
cells controlled would no longer be functional.
Polio has long been a disease in this world. Mummies with one leg shorter than
the other, and a memorial that shows a priest with one leg withered are two examples of
ancient artifacts possibly proving the polio virus's existence as far back as 1500 B.C. The
first written record of an outbreak of polio is in 1835. It occurred in Workshop, England
with the record stating, "Four remarkable cases of suddenly induced paralysis, occurring in
children..." Nevertheless, it was not until 1916 that the United States became well aware
of the polio dilemma. In that year, there were 27,363 cases of polio with 7,179 resulting
in death. Unfortunately, the problem didn't go away; in New York City there were 9,023
cases with 2,448 deaths. "The epidemics peaked in the United States from 1942 to
1943,...In 1950, there were more than 33,000 United States cases." The state of Florida
was one of the many states that was hit hard with polio. The director of the Florida
Department of Public Health, Dr. Wilson Sowder, said, "I have not seen a communicable
disease that has disrupted a community...as this has." The disease "was communicable as
an intestinal virus that would spread from the stomach to the nervous system." It was
"transmitted in fecal matter or in secretions of the nose and throat, the virus enters its
victim by way of the mouth..." It was not only the fact that it was so easy to get that
made it terrifying, but it was the effects the disease had on its victim. There would be
those that somehow recovered completely, yet that was not the usual. Some would die,
others would not be able to use their legs or both their legs and arms. Even more
staggering, there were those that could only move an arm, or just their fingers and eyes.
"Some would remain in an iron lung--a great, 1,800-pound casketlike contraption...The
iron lung hissed and sighed rhythmically, performing artificial respiration by way of air
pressure", said Charles L. Mee. During the summers in Florida, kids would not be
allowed to go to the movies or to the pools because of the parents fear of them
contracting the virus. Due to the consequences, polio "aroused as much alarm in that era
as does AIDS today."
Finally, on April 12, 1955 it was announced that Dr. Jonas Salk, using a technique
reported by Dr. John F. Enders in 1949, had discovered a cure that could be depended
upon to immunize humans from polio. "Overnight, Jonas E. Salk was a hero," said
Kathleen Arsenault, a librarian at the University of South Florida at Bayboro.1 Everyone
was so relieved that a vaccine had been found that they "observed moments of silence,
rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their traffic lights red in
brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked
fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at
strangers, forgave enemies." It "consummated the most extraordinary undertaking in the
history of science." Although Dr. Salk tried to take no credit for what he and his fellow
workers had accomplished, the public ignored his words and gave all the credit to him.
Jonas Salk "awakened that morning as a moderately prominent research professor on the
faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He ended the day as the most
beloved medical scientist on earth." Dr. Salk did not patent his vaccine, therefore, he did
not receive any royalties for it, though he could have been a millionaire. As it was though,
he received many tokens of gratitude.
"The ardent people named schools, streets, hospitals, and new-born infants after
him. They sent him checks, cash, money orders, stamps, scrolls, certificates,
pressed flowers, snapshots, candy, baked goods, religious medals, rabbits' feet and
other talismans, and uncounted thousands of letters and telegrams, both individual
and round-robin, describing their heartfelt gratitude and admiration. They offered
him free automobiles, agricultural equipment, clothing, vacations, lucrative jobs
in government and industry, and several hundred opportunities to get rich quick.
Their legislatures and parliaments passed resolutions, and their heads of state
issued proclamations. Their universities tendered honorary degrees. He was
nominated for the Nobel prize, which he did not get, and a Congressional medal,
which he got, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which
turned him down. He was mentioned for several dozen lesser awards of national
or local or purely promotional character, most of which he turned down."
Dr. Salk is thought of most for his polio vaccine, yet he is the scientist who
invented the flu shot. The flu virus is an illness that affects the digestive track, most often
the stomach walls. He and Dr. Francis developed the vaccine in 1976 at the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor. That vaccine helps many people today to get through the flu
season without any or little suffering.
The United States has been free of polio since September of 1991. The United
Nations agency stated that this was true in all of the Western Hemisphere: the United
States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Even though the Western Hemisphere
is polio free, the rest of the world is very far from it. There are still approximately
120,000 cases a year. That number is decreasing: in 1992 there where a reported 15,911
cases in a total of 58 countries, whereas in 1993 there where only 7,898 cases reported in
a total of 46 countries. That is a 50 percent decrease in only one year. There was also
141 countries that reported no cases of polio in all of 1993. One organization affiliated
with polio elimination is The Rotary Foundation. This group has developed a program
called PolioPlus. This program's goal is to eradicate polio worldwide by the year 2005.
This goal will prove to be a very expensive endeavor; over 10 years it could cost up to as
much as 1.4 billion dollars. One event that has helped make the United States polio free
is that children must have received the polio vaccination before they can enter the public
school system. Everyone is working together, though, to try and eradicate polio
worldwide. Japan and the United States have agreed to a joint health program for children
to do away with polio by the year 2000. Although the whole world seems to be on its
way to being polio free, the polio survivors are still suffering. "Nearly a third of the 1.6
million polio survivors have begun to develop puzzling ailments, such as fatigue, muscle
weakness and atrophy, and in some cases difficulty breathing." This "ailment" is known as
post-polio syndrome. The theory behind this problem is "the initial viral attack kills a
number of motor neurons and weakens some of the surviving nerve cells. As the
post-polio patient ages, these damaged neurons increasingly lose their connections to
muscles, which stop responding." Other symptoms that accompany post-polio syndrome
are as follows: chronic muscle pain, sensitivity to cold weather, and sleeping problems.
Of all the polio survivors, ninety percent of them are predicted to contract post-polio
syndrome. It has been found that from the time of the original disease to the time of the
contraction of post-polio syndrome is about thirty years. Herman Oliger had to quit work
because of post-polio syndrome. "Any strenuous activity would have to be followed with
more than eight hours of sleep and in some cases, two days of rest." As a result of this
debilitating illness, some people must go back to the use of leg braces or wheelchairs or
even the iron lung. The only organization that has been formed to help this type of people
is the Arkansas League of Polio Survivors located in Little Rock. This organization was
founded by Margie R. Loschke who is a post-polio sufferer herself. It is a non-profit
establishment, there are no dues, and they give moral support to those who are suffering.
Post-polio syndrome is an inept thing to happen, yet there are no doctors that are capable
of helping these people. "Polio hasn't been taught in medical school since the vaccine
came out, so there's not but a very few doctors (and) therapists who know anything about
polio and the polio muscles," said Margie Loschke. As a result of the polio survivors,
physical therapy was born. "And now they've pushed them away and forgotten all about
them." If there were to be an accident involving a post-polio syndrome person "there'd be
nobody in that hospital, no medical personnel...that would know how to handle a
post-polio body without injuring it," said Loschke.
Not only are there people being affected by polio in one way or the other, there are
still people being affected by the flu. Jonas Salk also invented a flu vaccine, however, it is
more on a temporary scale. Another reason the flu is still around is that there are many
different strains of the flu, and doctors have a hard time predicting the ones that will be
infecting people in the up and coming flu seasons.
Lastly, Jonas Salk is now working on a vaccine for the polio of today, AIDS.
He is working on a vaccine made of killed viruses, but so far he has not acquired any
substantial results. In the summer of 1994, the United States did conduct a large-scale
test of Dr. Salk's proposed AIDS vaccine. This vaccine has shown the "growth of the
human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, slowed substantially in infected volunteers given
three injections of the vaccine." However, Dr. David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS
Research Center said, "There's absolutely no evidence that the vaccine did any good." Dr.
Ho is not alone in his thoughts, many experts on the Food and Drug Administration panel
feel the same. This panel also said that this has "lowered the standards" and has caused
more confusion on how to treat AIDS patients. It is ironic, in a way, that Dr. Salk is
working on a vaccine for AIDS. Some scientists truly believe that "the AIDS epidemic
was sparked 30 years ago by a polio vaccine, which was accidentally contaminated with a
monkey virus." Through all the criticism though, Dr. Salk said, " My job, at the moment,
is to help people see what I see. If it's of value, fine. And if it's not of value, then at least
I've done what I can do."
Jonas Edward Salk may be the most well known scientist because of his polio
vaccine. Although he was poor growing up, he did well in school. This standard was
continued into his employment as a bacteriologist. During his stay at Pittsburgh
University, the world was suffering immensely from the polio disease. Dr. Salk was
named a hero when he found the vaccine for it. He also helped in the suffering from the
flu viruses. Dr. Salk has attributed to the polio free Western Hemisphere of today, yet
another problem has arisen in the post-polio syndrome ailment. Now, Jonas Salk is
working on a vaccine for the dreaded disease at this time, the AIDS virus. It might be
possible for one man to save two generations of people in one lifetime. As Dr. Salk says,
"I have this way of being right."
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