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.
first wife of Dr. Jonas Salk
quoted in A Paralyzing Fear
page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | page 4
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
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
page 1 | page 2 | page 3 | page 4
1. "Jonas Salk, M.D.: Developer of Polio
Vaccine." The American Academy of Achievement. 1999.
(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.