Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk, M.D., was a celebrated American researcher, best known as the developer of the first polio vaccine (the eponymous Salk vaccine). In his later career, Salk devoted much of his time and energy to developing an AIDS vaccine.

Achievement out of humble beginnings

Jonas Edward Salk was born in New York City to poor Jewish-Russian immigrants, Dora and Daniel B. Salk. His mother was a homemaker with little education, and his father was a ladies clothing designer. Jonas was the eldest of three sons. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1936 and went on to study at the College of Medicine at New York University. He received his medical degree in 1939.

Married life

At the college, Salk met his future wife, Donna, and they were married in June 1939, shortly after he received his medical degree. They had three sons, then in 1968, Jonas and Donna were divorced. He was remarried in 1970, to Françoise Gilot.

On the road to a vaccine

Salk first worked at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City as a staff physician. In 1942 he joined Thomas Francis as a researcher at the University of Michigan, where they worked to develop an influenza vaccine. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1947, where he directed the Virus Research Laboratory. During the 1950s in Pittsburgh, Salk developed, tested, and refined the poliovirus* vaccine. (During those years, Dr. Albert Sabin developed another effective polio vaccine.)

The vaccine was key in the near eradication of a once widely feared disease. Polio’s outbreak in 1916 left 6,000 dead and 27,000 paralyzed. Franklin D. Roosevelt was perhaps its most well-known victim. In 1952, 57,628 cases were recorded. After the vaccine become available, U.S. polio cases dropped by 85 to 90 percent in just two years. In 1979, only 10 cases were reported.

Further research

Salk established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, in 1962. The faculty included such distinguished members as Jacob Bronowski and Francis Crick. The major focus of study was molecular biology and genetics. Jonas Salk directed the institute until he retired in 1985.

A lifetime of acclaim

Jonas Salk died in La Jolla at the age of 80. During his long life, Dr. Salk received numerous awards and honors, among them the Lasker Award (1956), The Bruce Memorial Award (1958), Jawaharlal Nehru Award (1975), Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977).

*The poliovirus initially attacks the nervous system, and within a few hours of infection, paralysis can occur. The death rate of the disease is about five to 10 percent of cases. Death usually occurs because the breathing muscles become paralyzed.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes by Jonas Salk.

Regarding Patent for the Salk Vaccine
Edward R. Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?
Jonas Salk: Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?
CBS Interview, 1955
Regarding His Own Institute
I couldn't possibly have become a member of this institute if I hadn't founded it myself.
On his difficulties with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and his unorthodox methods.

- - - Books You May Like Include: ----

Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky.
Drawing on newly available papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and other key players, Oshinsky paints a remarkable portrait of America in the early 19...