Jonas Edward Salk is the scientist who is credited with ending an era of fear. While the onset of polio epidemic could create widespread fear and even panic Jonas Salk was the man who was able to develop the vaccine that brought it to a halt. Jonas Salk is best known for the research and development of the first effective polio vaccine now named the Salk vaccine. Dr. Salk was both a biologist and a physician.
Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Dora and Daniel B. Salk. He had two siblings, Lee and Herman Salk. Education was a high priority in the Salk home and Jonas graduated from Townsend Harris High School and then went to the City College of New York, where he earned a B.Sc.. He later received a medical degree from the School of Medicine at New York University in June 1939.
While he was in college he met his future wife, Donna Lindsay. They married on June 9, 1939. They added three children to their family: Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan. In 1968, the Salks divorced, and in 1970 Dr. Salk married Francoise Gilot, who was the former mistress of Pablo Picasso.
Despite his brothers both entering the medical field Dr. Salk often stated he had no early interest in medicine. He only changed to premed during his college years after his mother stated he would not be a very good lawyer. While attending medical school the hypothesis that would later help him defeat polio began to be formed.
In 1938, while he was still in college, Salk began working with Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. on an influenza vaccine. After medical school, Salk went on to work as a staff physician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Later, he again worked for Dr. Francis’s virus lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1947, he moved to Pittsburgh, where he was made the lead researcher at the Virus Research lab at the University of Pittsburgh.
It was during the 1950s that Salk developed, tested, and refined the first successful polio vaccine. Dr. Salk’s ideas were radical since it was believed that immunity can come only after the body has survived at least a mild infection by live virus. Dr. Salk observed that it is possible to acquire immunity through contact with inactivated or killed virus. By using formaldehyde, Salk killed the polio virus, but kept it intact enough to trigger the necessary immune response. Salk’s research caught the attention of Basil O’Connor, who was president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes Foundation). It was this organization that decided to fund Salk’s efforts to develop a killed virus vaccine. In 1955 he first began immunizations at Pittsburgh’s Arsenal Elementary School in the Lawrenceville neighborhood and made international news as the man who beat polio.
Salk’s vaccine was instrumental in beginning the eradication of polio, a once highly feared disease. Records show that Polio epidemics in 1916 left about 6000 dead and 27,000 paralyzed in the United States. By 1952, 57,628 cases were recorded in the U.S. After the vaccine became available, polio cases in the U.S. dropped by eighty five to ninety percent in only two years.
In 1965, Salk struck out on his own. He left the University of Pittsburgh and established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where the major focus of his study was molecular biology and genetics. During Dr. Salk’s last years, he went on to co-found The Immune Response Corporation with Kevin Kimberlin to search for a vaccine against AIDS.
Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995 in La Jolla, CA due to heart failure. He was eighty years old.