Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans–Jonas Salk

Jul 23, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans–Jonas Salk

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, as we enter into the realm of science, and discovery, one name that stands out is Jonas Salk. Can you tell us about where he was born and his early years?

Jonas Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914. His family lived in East Harlem at the time of his birth, but would move to Queens and the Bronx during his childhood. Even though his parents had little formal education, Salk quickly gave evidence of a keen intelligence. This trait was shared by his brother Lee, who would become a well-known child psychologist and author.

  1. Where did he go to high school and college?

Because Salk’s parents were not well to do, they could not afford to send Salk to a private school. Fortunately, New York City had established Townshend Harris High School for gifted students in 1904. A noted American diplomat, Harris had been a champion of free education, and he had been the driving force behind the creation of the school that bears his name. Townshend Harris High School had an accelerated program that required students to master a traditional four-year curriculum in only three years. Accepted by Townshend Harris High School at the age of 13, Salk graduated three years later. No better off financially than they had been when Salk entered high school, his family could not afford to send him to a private college. Here again, the beneficence of New York City came to his aid. The City College of New York (CCNY) was free to qualified individuals, and Salk’s grades at Townshend Harris High School were sufficiently good to gain him admission.

In 1934, Salk received a B.S. in Chemistry from CCNY, and then decided to pursue an advanced degree. It appears that Salk wanted to become a lawyer, but was convinced by his mother to go into medicine. Once he decided to go into that field, he decided to apply to New York University. He did so primarily for two reasons.

First, New York University was relatively inexpensive.

And second, as a Jew, Salk would have faced great difficulty at that time in our nation’s history gaining admission into one of the more prestigious medical schools. During his time at New York University, Salk made the decision to seek a career in medical research rather than the practice of medicine per se. This decision put him on the path to make his great contribution to humanity.

  1. What were some of his earliest endeavors in the realm of science?

There were many paths of medical research that Salk could have pursued, but a two-month stint working with Dr. Thomas Francis at the University of Michigan clearly helped Salk choose his future course of action. Francis had done path-breaking work in identifying the virus that caused Influenza B, and was thus regarded as an expert in the field of virology. Salk found this realm of medicine fascinating, and when given the chance to follow his own line of research he devoted himself to that field.

  1. His greatest discovery – how did it come about and how was it received?

At the time of Salk’s birth, poliomyelitis was becoming recognized as a serious American public health problem. Although the disease had existed for centuries, incidents of infection were rare in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century. For reasons which are still not totally understood, the disease became much more prevalent at that time, and rates of poliomyelitis became greater as time passed. A frightening aspect of the disease was that it seemed to strike otherwise healthy children with great frequency.

While some afflicted with the disease, such as Alan Alda and J. Robert Oppenheimer, would make a full recovery, others suffered death or paralysis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the most famous example of an American who suffered paralysis, and it is largely because of him that a massive campaign began to develop a cure. During his second term as president in 1938, he helped organize the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to help find a preventative measure for poliomyelitis, and this proved to be quite successful at raising funds for that effort.

Much of the credit for this belongs to Eddie Cantor, a famous entertainer at that time. It was he who encouraged people to contribute a dime to help the cause, a campaign that became known as “The March of Dimes.” With funding thus available, a number of researchers began the task of developing a cure. The poliomyelitis virus had by that time been identified, but the problem lay with developing a safe, effective vaccine. While some favored the use of a live virus, Salk decided to focus on just the opposite. By now the director of a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, Salk and his staff worked tirelessly to come up with a vaccine that would not only work, but also could be produced in quantities to provide immunization for the children of the world.

By 1954, he had succeeded in this task, and won approval to do a large-scale test of the vaccine. On April 12, 1955, a scientific panel charged with reviewing the results of the trial pronounced the vaccine “safe and effective.” Millions of children (including this author) then received polio injections, and poliomyelitis rates began to tail off. Although other vaccines were later developed, Salk’s is still the one that is most widely utilized around the world to this day.

  1. His later years- what was he involved with and how did he spend his “twilight years”?

Many people expected Salk to capitalize on his new vaccine, but he chose not to. When asked by the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow why he hadn’t even taken out a patent on the vaccine, Salk famously replied “could you take out a patent on the sun?” Not only did he refuse to enrich himself, he also avoided publicity. He would receive many awards before his death in 1995, but he never initiated efforts to obtain them. The one thing that he did use his famous name for was to help establish a research institute. Using funds provided primarily by the National Foundation for Infantile Research, a tract of land was purchased in La Jolla, California and developed into the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. First opened in 1963, this non-profit enterprise consistently ranks as one of the most influential research facilities in the world. It is a fitting memorial for a man who helped conquer an extremely insidious disease.

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