About Quizzes

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.