Jonas Salk


July 6, 2022

Jonas Edward Salk (October 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was an American physician, virologist, and epidemiologist, best known as the inventor of the first polio vaccine, which, in his honor, became known as the Salk Vaccine.


He worked in New York, Michigan, Pittsburgh and California. In 1960 he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which is now a center for medical and scientific research. Throughout his scientific life, he was one of thousands of researchers to draw on the heritage of Henrietta Lacks, an American woman who died of cancer. Henrietta's cell line was peculiar to the point of becoming one of the greatest icons of science to this day and became known as HeLa. It was from HeLa cells that Salk produced the polio vaccine. In the last few years of his life, he devoted a lot of energy to trying to develop a vaccine against AIDS. Salk did not seek fame or fortune from the discoveries, and is quoted as saying, "Who does my vaccine belong to? To the people! Can you patent the sun?" Until 1955, when the vaccine began to be administered, polio was considered the most frightening public health problem of the American post-war period. Annual epidemics were increasingly devastating in the country. The 1952 epidemic was the worst outbreak in the history of the North American country. Of the nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with some form of paralysis, with the majority of victims being children. According to a 2009 PBS documentary, the second greatest fear in the United States at the time was polio, second only to the fear of the country being attacked by an atomic bomb. Consequently, scientists began a frantic race to find a means of preventing and curing the disease. Thus, according to Denemberg, "Salk worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for years..." to arrive at the discovery of the vaccine. Jonas Salk died of heart failure at the age of 80 on June 23, 1995, in La Jolla and was buried at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego.

Polio Research

In 1947, Salk aspired to have his own laboratory and was awarded one at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, but the laboratory was smaller than he had expected and he found the rules imposed by the university restrictive. In 1948, Harry Weaver, director of research at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, contacted Salk. He asked Salk to find out if there were more types of polio than the three then known, offering additional space, equipment and researchers. In the first year, he gathered supplies and researchers, including Julius Youngner, Byron Bennett, L. James Lewis, and secretary Lorraine Friedman, joined Salk's team as well. As time passed, Salk began to obtain grants from the Mellon Family and was able to build a functioning virology laboratory. He later joined the National Foundation for Infantile Palsy polio project established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Extensive publicity and the scare of polio led to much greater funding, $67 million in 1955, but research continued with dangerous live vaccines. Salk decided to use the safer 'killed' virus rather than weakened forms of polio virus strains as used contemporaneously by Albert Sabin, who was developing an oral vaccine. July 1952, aided by staff at the DT Watson Home for Crippled Children, Salk injected his killed virus vaccine into 43 children. A few weeks later, Salk injected children at Polk State School for the mentally handicapped. He vaccinated his own children in 1953. In 1954, he tested the vaccine on about