5 Things You Didn't Know About Jonas Salk

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You probably know Jonas Salk as the man behind the polio vaccine. You may not know about his scientific rivalries, love life, and non-polio projects, though. Let's take a look at five unheralded aspects of the doctor's life.

1. He Wasn't Big on Patents

Shortly after Salk's vaccine breakthrough, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow sat down with the scientist for an interview. At one point, Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the vaccine, and Salk responded with one of the most famous quotes of his career: "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Salk wasn't just being generous with his answer; he was also being humble. In his book Polio: An American Story, David M. Oshinsky writes a more complete look at the issue. According to his account, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the University of Pittsburgh (where he conducted his work) had taken a long look at patenting the vaccine, but Salk's objections were a major reason why the institutions eventually backed down.

2. He Had a Rival

Nothing beats a good scientific throwdown and, as rivalries go, it's tough to top Salk's with Albert Sabin. While Salk deservedly gets the credit for discovering the first effective polio vaccine, his fellow researcher Sabin was always a little bitter about Salk's sudden elevation to rock-star status.

There was more than just professional jealousy at play, though. Salk and Sabin had very different ideas about how to save the world from polio. Salk's famed vaccine involved giving a patient an inactivated version of the polio virus in what was known as a killed-virus preparation. Sabin, on the other hand, created a version of the vaccine that included weakened live forms of the virus that could be taken orally.

Sabin spent a lot of time blasting Salk's version of the vaccine, which he felt was inferior. Salk later recalled, "I remember in Copenhagen in 1960, he said to me, just like that, that he was out to kill the killed vaccine." Sabin, for his part, dismissed Salk's creation as "pure kitchen chemistry."

Salk may be the much more famous name now, but Sabin, who passed away in 1993, got the last laugh. His oral live-attenuated polio vaccine became the far more commonly used vaccine around the world.

3. He Became an Institution

In 1960 Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA, and the institute almost immediately became a research powerhouse upon its opening in 1963. Salk brought in scientists like DNA pioneer Francis Crick, and he eventually fleshed out the staff with other Nobel winners like Robert W. Holley. With so much scientific star power, it's easy to see why Salk once joked, "I couldn't possibly have become a member of this institute if I hadn't founded it myself."

The Salk Institute is still one of the major centers of biological research, and it's also lauded for its architecture. Celebrated architect Louis Kahn's firm designed the campus, which is considered a major achievement in its own right.

Photo by Gregg M. Erickson

4. He Married Picasso's Muse

During the 1940s and early 1950s, French artist Francoise Gilot was Pablo Picasso's muse and lover. Although the couple were separated in age by 40 years, they had two children together. (Gilot later wrote a wildly successful memoir of her time with Picasso entitled Life With Picasso.)

Picasso wasn't the only legend in his field who wooed Gilot, though. Mutual friends introduced Gilot to Salk in La Jolla in 1969, and the next year the couple married. Gilot and Salk stayed together until his death in 1995, and she still does work for the Salk Institute.

5. He Took a Crack at AIDS

Salk didn't rest on his laurels after pioneering the polio vaccine and opening his institute. When he passed in 1995 at the age of 80, he had been hard at work on a vaccine for AIDS for several years. The fruits of these labors, a product called Remune, sought to halt the progression of HIV into full-blown AIDS.

Unfortunately, the vaccine never really panned out in clinical trials, and in 2001 drug giant Pfizer yanked its funding for clinical trials after failing to see evidence that Remune actually helped patients stave off the onset of AIDS.

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April 22, 2011 - 10:14am
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