12 Innocuous Facts About Jonas Salk
By Suzanne Raga
Poliomyelitis, an infectious, potentially fatal disease that permanently paralyzed both children and adults, was once a serious problem in the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was paralyzed due to polio, and almost 60,000 Americans were infected with polio in 1952. The disease inspired fear because there was no obvious way to prevent it, and it struck thousands of children. In 1955, though, virologist Jonas Salk became a worldwide hero when he developed the first effective polio vaccine. Here are a dozen facts about Salk, the Father of Biophilosophy.
1. HIS FATHER WAS A CLOTHING DESIGNER WITH LIMITED EDUCATION.
Salk’s father, Daniel, was the son of Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe. Daniel graduated from elementary school but not high school, and he worked in the garment industry as a designer of women’s blouses. Salk’s mother, Dora, left Russia for the U.S. in 1901 and had no education. Because of their limited instruction, Salk’s parents encouraged him and his two younger brothers to further their schooling and advance in the world.
2. HE PLANNED TO BE A LAWYER AND SERVE IN CONGRESS.
In a 1991 interview with the Academy of Achievement, Salk revealed that he was not interested in science as a child. He entered college as a pre-law student, hoping to be elected to Congress one day. The reason he switched from pre-law to pre-med? "My mother didn't think I’d make a very good lawyer. And I believe that her reasons were that I couldn’t really win an argument with her," he explained.
3. HE WAS REJECTED FROM MULTIPLE LABS AFTER MEDICAL SCHOOL.
After graduating from medical school at New York University and completing his residency training, Salk applied to laboratories to work in medical research. Rather than treat patients as a practicing physician, Salk hoped to work on the influenza vaccine, a research area he began studying in medical school. Although he was rejected from multiple labs, perhaps due to quotas that discriminated against Jewish people, he didn’t get discouraged. "My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that's how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that's not my inclination," he revealed in his Academy of Achievement interview.
4. THE MARCH OF DIMES FOUNDATION FUNDED HIS RESEARCH.
Salk worked on the influenza vaccine at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health until 1947, when he began running a lab at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The next year, he started working on a project for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later renamed the March of Dimes Foundation) to research the different types of polio. Roosevelt created the foundation in 1938 to help other Americans suffering from polio, and the foundation funded many polio research and vaccine trials, including Salk’s.
5. HE TESTED THE POLIO VACCINE ON HIS OWN FAMILY.
In the early 1950s, Salk tested the polio vaccine he developed on monkeys, children in Pittsburgh, and himself. Strongly believing in the safety and efficacy of his vaccine, Salk also injected his wife, Donna, and their three sons [PDF] in the family’s kitchen, using syringes he had boiled on the stove. In 1953, Salk published the preliminary results of his human testing in the Journal of the American Medical Association. By June 1954, 1.8 million children and adults, dubbed polio pioneers, had volunteered to be injected with Salk’s vaccine (or a placebo) in a double-blind trial, sponsored by the March of Dimes. And on April 12, 1955, Salk’s vaccine was licensed. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the media reported that Salk's national trial was a success, and crowds of ecstatic people celebrated the news.
6. OTHER SCIENTISTS CRITICIZED HIS NOVEL APPROACH TO VACCINES.
Although Salk was lauded as a savior and international hero, some of his fellow scientists didn’t feel the love. Polish-American scientist Albert Sabin loudly criticized Salk, calling him a kitchen chemist and trying to discredit his choice to use a killed polio virus (rather than a live or weakened one) in his vaccine. Sabin, as well as many of Salk’s contemporaries, incorrectly believed that a killed virus wouldn’t adequately immunize the patient. Additionally, a vaccine using a weakened polio virus might actually infect the patient with polio, and Salk didn’t want to take that risk. Other scientists resented Salk for succeeding outside the medical establishment and for getting all the accolades when he was just one of many researchers working on polio.
In 1962, Sabin introduced an oral (sugar cube) polio vaccine that contained a live (rather than killed) virus, and the U.S. government began using Sabin’s vaccine instead of Salk’s because it was cheaper and still effective. Today, a reformulated version of Salk’s vaccine is used in most parts of the world (except for parts of Africa and the Middle East where polio is still a problem, and where Sabin’s vaccine is used).
7. HE DIDN’T WANT TO FILE A PATENT FOR THE POLIO VACCINE.
Salk didn’t directly profit from his polio vaccine because he didn’t file a patent for it. When a journalist asked him who owned the patent, Salk responded: "The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Salk reportedly objected to owning the patent because millions of Americans had donated money to the March of Dimes, hoping to help eradicate polio. But according to U.S. patent law, the vaccine wasn’t novel enough to be patentable, so some scholars criticize Salk for presenting himself as an altruistic person when he was probably aware that the vaccine couldn’t be patented. Forbes estimates that had he owned the patent, Salk could have earned $7 billion.
8. HE DISLIKED BEING A PUBLIC FIGURE.
Although Salk quickly became a world hero, he didn’t enjoy losing his anonymity and gaining the responsibilities that came with being a public figure. "I felt myself very much like someone in the eye of a hurricane because all this swirling was going on around me. It was at that moment that everything changed," Salk recalled of becoming an overnight celebrity. Some scientists criticized him for hogging the international media spotlight, and the National Academy of Sciences and Nobel Prize Committee ignored him, perhaps because he had achieved success while working outside the scientific establishment.
9. HE WAS THE STEPFATHER OF PABLO PICASSO’S CHILDREN.
In 1970, Salk married Françoise Gilot, a French artist who had two children, Claude and Paloma, with Pablo Picasso. In an interview in 1980, Paloma remembered the fear people had of polio, and that as a child, she didn’t visit her father’s house in the South of France due to a polio outbreak. She also revealed that she got along well with her stepfather: "He’s very cute. He’s a wonderful person," she said. After his death in 1995, Gilot continued her late husband's legacy by working at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
10. HE TRIED TO DEVELOP CURES FOR CANCER AND AIDS.
After Salk developed the polio vaccine, he tried to develop vaccines for cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. Although he wasn’t ultimately successful, he did patent Remune, a vaccine for AIDS to delay the progression of HIV into AIDS. In 2001, six years after Salk died, Pfizer stopped funding clinical trials for Remune due to a lack of evidence that it worked.
11. HE WROTE A HANDFUL OF BOOKS ABOUT SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Salk wrote books about science, philosophy, and mankind. In The Survival of the Wisest, Salk applied Charles Darwin’s ideas on survival of the fittest to the need for humankind to be educated and have knowledge. And in World Population and Human Values: A New Reality, he and his psychiatrist son, Dr. Jonathan Salk, discussed the interplay between world population growth and human values.
12. THE SALK INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL STUDIES CONTINUES HIS WORK.
In 1963, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies opened in La Jolla, California. Although Salk reportedly struggled with running the business side of the institute, he got funding from the March of Dimes Foundation and recruited Nobel Prize-winning scientists to investigate the biological aspects of cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Designed by architect Louis Kahn, the institute continues to serve as a research center for immunology, neuroscience, and genetics.