Biography of Jonas Salk: Inventor of the Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk at work

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Jonas Salk (October 28, 1914 – October 28, 1995) was an American medical researcher and physician. While serving as the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, Salk discovered and perfected the first vaccine found to be safe and effective in preventing polio or infantile paralysis, one of the most-feared and crippling diseases of the early 20th century.

Fast Facts: Jonas Salk

  • Occupation: Medical researcher and physician
  • Known For: Developed first successful polio vaccine
  • Born: October 28, 1914 in New York City, New York
  • Died: June 23, 1995 in La Jolla, California
  • Education: City College of New York, B.S., 1934; New York University, M.D., 1939
  • Notable Awards: Presidential Citation (1955); Congressional Gold Medal (1975); Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977)
  • Spouse(s): Donna Lindsay (m. 1939-1968); Françoise Gilot (m. 1970)
  • Children: Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan
  • Famous Quote: “I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more.”

Early Life and Education

Born in New York City to European immigrants Daniel and Dora Salk on October 28, 1914, Jonas resided in the New York Boroughs of the Bronx and Queens with his parents and his two younger brothers, Herman and Lee. Though they were poor, Salk’s parents stressed the importance of education to their sons.

At age 13, Salk entered Townsend Harris High School, a public school for intellectually gifted students. After completing high school in just three years, Salk attended the City College of New York (CCNY), earning a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1934. After earning his M.D. from New York University in 1939, Salk served a two-year medical internship at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. As a result of his efforts at Mount Sinai, Salk was awarded a fellowship to the University of Michigan, where he studied alongside renowned epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., in an attempt to develop a vaccine for the flu virus.

Personal and Family Life

Salk married social worker Donna Lindsay on the day after he graduated from medical school in 1939. Before divorcing in 1968, the couple had three sons: Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan. In 1970, Salk married Françoise Gilot, a French painter and former romantic partner of Pablo Picasso.

Development of the Salk Polio Vaccine

In 1947, Salk was named head of the University of Pittsburgh’s Virus Research Lab, where he began his history-making research on polio. In 1948, with added funding from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—now called the March of Dimes—Salk expanded his laboratory and research team.

By 1951, Salk had identified three distinct strains of the polio virus and had developed a vaccine he believed would prevent the disease. Known as a “killed virus,” the vaccine utilized laboratory-grown live polio viruses that had been made chemically incapable of reproducing. Once in the patient’s bloodstream, the vaccine’s benign polio virus tricked the immune system into producing disease-fighting antibodies without the risk of exposing healthy patients to live polio virus. Salk’s use of “killed virus” was looked at skeptically by most virologists at the time, especially Dr. Albert Sabin, who believed that only live viruses could be effective in vaccines. 

Testing and Approval

After preliminary tests on laboratory animals proved successful, Salk began testing his polio vaccine on children on July 2, 1952. In one of the largest medical tests in history, nearly 2 million young “polio pioneers” were injected with the vaccine over the next two years. In 1953, Salk tested the still-experimental vaccine on himself and his wife and sons.  

On April 12, 1955, the Salk polio vaccine was declared safe and effective. The headlines screamed, “Polio is Conquered!” as celebrations erupted across the nation. Suddenly a national hero, the 40-year-old Salk was given a special presidential citation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a White House ceremony. A tearful Eisenhower told the young researcher, “I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.”

Impact of the Salk Vaccine

The Salk vaccine had an immediate impact. In 1952, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia had reported more than 57,000 cases of polio in the United States. By 1962, that number had fallen to less than one thousand. Salk’s vaccine would soon be replaced by Albert Sabin’s live virus vaccine because it was less expensive to produce and could be administered orally rather than by injection.

On the day his vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent,” Salk was interviewed by legendary television news anchor Edward R. Murrow. When asked who owned the patent, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say,” referring to the millions of dollars for research and testing raised by the March of Dimes campaign. He added, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Philosophical Views

Jonas Salk subscribed to his own unique philosophy he called “biophilosophy.” Salk described biophilosophy as a “biological, evolutionary point of view to philosophical, cultural, social and psychological problems.” He wrote several books on the topic of biophilosophy throughout his lifetime.

In a 1980 interview by the New York Times, Salk shared his thoughts on biophilosophy and how drastic changes in the human population would bring new innovative ways of thinking about human nature and medicine. “I think of biological knowledge as providing useful analogies for understanding human nature,” he said. “People think of biology in terms of such practical matters as drugs, but its contribution to knowledge about living systems and ourselves will in the future be equally important.”

Honors and Awards

Defeating polio brought Salk a raft of honors from politicians, colleges, hospitals, and public health organizations. A few of the most notable of these include:

In addition, several noted universities and medical colleges offer scholarships in Salk’s memory.

Later Years and Legacy

In 1963, Salk established and directed his own medical research organization, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he and his team sought cures for diseases including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. After being named the institute’s founding director in 1975, Salk would continue to study AIDS, HIV, Alzheimer’s, and aging until his death. Salk died of heart disease at age 80 on June 23, 1995, at his home in La Jolla, California.

While he will always be remembered as the man who stopped polio, Salk contributed to other advances in the fields of medicine, biology, philosophy, and even architecture. As a staunch advocate for the practical, rather than the theoretical, use of scientific research, Salk was responsible for several advances in vaccinology—the creation of vaccines for the treatment of human and animal diseases. In addition, Salk’s unique “biophilosophical” view of human life and society led him to create the field of psychoneuroimmunology—the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease.

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