Jonas Salk http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonas_Salk was born on October 28, 1914, in New York City, New York, to Daniel and Dora Press Salk. His parents were Ashkenazi Jews without extensive formal education. He grew up in the “Jewish immigrant culture” of New York with his two younger brothers, Herman and Lee. The family moved from East Harlem to the Bronx but spent some time in Queens.
At 13 years of age Salk entered Townsend Harris High School, a public school for intellectually gifted students. There he “was known as a perfectionist ... who read everything he could lay his hands on.” The four year curriculum was crammed into three years, and most students dropped or flunked out. The ones who graduated would have the credentials to attend highly competitive City College of New York (CCNY).
At CCNY Salk worked for a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry with the long term goal of becoming an attorney. His mother urged him to concentrate on medical school. The school was not equipped well for pre-medicine studies as it had no research laboratories, an inadequate library, and few noted scholars on the faculty; however, it applied the rules fairly and student body was competitive. From the ranks of the 1930s and 1940s, eight former students received the Nobel Prize and more PhD recipients than any other public college besides UC Berkley.
After graduating from CCNY, Salk enrolled in New York University to study medicine. The school had comparatively low tuition and did not discriminate against Jews. Salk worked as a laboratory technician during the school year and camp counselor during the summer.
Salk continued to have academic success; he was Alpha Omega Alpha, the Phi Beta Kappa Society of medical education. He could have been the only student in the medical school who did not plan to practice medicine. He concentrated on research and took a year off to study biochemistry. He later became more focused on bacteriology than medicine because he desired to “help mankind in general rather than single patients.” In 1941 Salk took a two-month elective to work in virology and became hooked.
After graduating from medical school, Salk began his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He was still focused on research but “showed tremendous skills as a clinician and a surgeon.” At the end of his residency, Salk had a difficult time finding a permanent research position due to Jewish quotas. He contacted his old mentor Dr. Francis who secured extra grant money and hired Salk to work on an “army-commissioned project to develop an influenza vaccine. Working together, Francis and Salk perfected a flu vaccine widely used at army bases.
Salk continued to search for a place where he could direct his own laboratory. He was approached by the director of research at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a victim of polio, had established a polio project, and Salk was asked to join the program. Salk quickly accepted the offer.
An article in a 1956 Wisdom magazine summarized some of Salk’s reasoning behind his desire to do research. “There are two types of medical specialists. There are those who fight disease day and night, who assist mankind in times of despair and agony and who preside over the awesome events of life and death. Others work in the quiet detachment of the laboratory; their names are often unknown to the general public, but their research may have momentous consequences.”
Polio confused researchers for years. It was first recorded in 1835 and steady grew more prevalent. Eventually, researchers learned the “virus was transmitted by fecal matter and secretions of the nose and throat. It entered the victim orally, established itself in the intestines, and then traveled to the brain or spinal cord.”
In 1948 Salk was asked to join the fight against polio and research/confirm how many polio types existed. There were three known types at the time, but researchers wanted to know if more types of polio existed. Salk spent the first year gathering supplies and researchers.
Salk worked sixteen hour days for years and finally developed a polio vaccine. On April 12, 1955, the vaccine was declared to be safe and effective. “Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America.”
Polio was considered to be one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. The annual epidemics were terribly frightening for everyone. The polio epidemic of 1952 was the worst outbreak in the history of the United States. There were nearly 58,000 reported cases, resulting in 3,145 deaths and 21,269 people with mild to disabling paralysis. I remember the fear of it. I remember one summer (maybe 1952) when my parents would not let us swim in ponds for fear we would contract polio.
By the summer of 1957 100 million doses had been distributed throughout the United States. I was one of the children who received vaccination during that period of time. I remember standing in line at my elementary school waiting to receive the vaccine for the first time. Dr. Salk continued to his research and later worked on a vaccine for the Aids virus.
In his personal life, Salk married Donna Lindsay the day after he graduated from medical school in 1939. Her father, Elmer Lindsay, was “a wealthy Manhattan dentist; he viewed Salk as a social inferior, several cuts below Donna’s former suitors.” He finally agreed to the marriage on two conditions: (1) the marriage had to wait until Salk could officially be listed on the wedding invitations as an M.D. and (2) he must give himself a middle name. The couple became the parents of three children: Peter, Darrell and Jonathan Salk. They divorced in 1968. In 1970 Salk married Francoise Gilot, the former mistress of Pablo Picasso.
Jonas Salk died from heart failure on June 23, 1995, in LaJolla, California, at age 80. He was buried at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego, California.
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