Dr. Salk: A Brief Bibliography
Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
You are on Dr. Salk
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

Dr. Salk
Dr. Salk

Jonas had the idea, from a time when he was quite young, that he wanted to do something that would make a difference to humanity.  And so he was fueled by an idealism that was sincere, backed by all the scientific knowledge, and his personality, and his ability to follow through.  It was extremely important to him to achieve and that's exactly what he did.

—Donna Salk
first wife of Dr. Jonas Salk
quoted in A Paralyzing Fear

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Jonas Salk was born 28 October 1914 in New York City, the eldest son of Russian immigrant parents.  His parents, like many immigrants of the time, were uneducated, but determined that their sons should have formal educations and achieve American success.  Salk attended Townsend Harris High School, one of the finest public high schools in New York.  He became the first member of his family to go to college.  He started at the City College of New York, where he intended to study law, but he soon learned that medicine intrigued him much more. 

Salk attended the New York University School of Medicine.  While there, he was given the opportunity to spend a several months researching influenza in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr.  The virus that causes influenza had recently been discovered, and Salk wondered if a weakened form of the virus could be used to convey immunity.  He succeeded in developing an inactivated vaccine for influenza.  The methodology behind this work would play an important role the the development of the polio vaccine.1

Even before he began his internship at Mount Sinai Hospital, Salk had decided that he was more interested in medical research than a medical practice.  He applied to the Rockefeller Institute for research positions, but was turned down.  The Institute had no interest in hiring a Jewish doctor.  Mount Sinai Hospital might have taken him, but they had a policy of not hiring their own interns.  Dr. Francis had meanwhile left New York University to head a new School of Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Salk did not want to go that far from his family, but Francis would hire him.  He went to Ann Arbor in 1942.2

In Ann Arbor, Salk returned to the study of influenza.  The U.S. was involved in World War II.  In 1918 and 1919, immediately following World War I, a massive pandemic of Spanish influenza had swept the globe, killing fifteen million people.  Public Health officials were concerned that the end of World War II might prompt a similar outbreak.  Influenza vaccine may have been instrumental in preventing another such catastrophe.3

In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, where he conducted research on poliovirus under a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.  Salk believed that the same inactivated virus techniques that had yielded the influenza vaccine would yield a safe and effective poliovirus vaccine.  He spent eight years of his life in pursuit of this treasure.

In the spring of 1952, after two years of development, Jonas Salk went to an institution for paralyzed children.  He injected them with his vaccine.  He then tested their blood, checking for increased antibodies to the poliovirus.   Although most of the children had had polio, and the risks were very low, Salk later admitted, "When you inoculate children, you don't sleep well for two or three months." 4

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Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes |Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  "Jonas Salk, M.D.: Developer of Polio Vaccine."  The American Academy of Achievement.   1999.   http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/sal0bio-1.    (1 May 1999)

2.  Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.  pp. 102-103.

3.  "Jonas Salk, M.D.: Developer of Polio Vaccine."  loc. cit.

4.  Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul Wagner.  A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America.  New York, New York: TV Books.  1998.   p. 171.