Jonas Edward Salk

The American physician, virologist, and immunologist Jonas Edward Salk (born 1914) developed the first effective poliomyelitis (polio) vaccine.

Jonas Salk was born in New York City on Oct. 28, 1914. At the age of 16 he entered the College of the City of New York with the thought of studying law. He decided instead to study medicine and in 1934 enrolled in the College of Medicine of New York University, from which he graduated in 1939. He interned at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital from 1940 to 1942, when he went to the University of Michigan, where he helped develop an influenza vaccine. In 1944 he was appointed research associate in epidemiology, and in 1946 he was made assistant professor.

In 1947 Salk accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh as associate professor of bacteriology, where he carried out his researches on a polio vaccine. Polio vaccines had been attempted before but without success because, as was apparent by 1949, there were three distinct types of polio viruses. This provided a starting point for Salk, who, working under a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, prepared a killed-virus vaccine effective against all three types. Testing began in 1950, and the preliminary report on the vaccine's effectiveness was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for 1953. National field trials were held in 1954, and in 1955 the vaccine was determined safe for general use.

Acceptance of the vaccine was not without problems for Salk. Fear, skepticism, opposition from medical colleagues who favored a live-virus vaccine, improper production of the vaccine by some pharmaceutical companies, and a glaring Hollywood-like promotion for the vaccine caused much scientific criticism of Salk. Many also felt that the National Foundation had improperly favored him. Although the Salk vaccine was effective, it was replaced largely by the Sabin oral vaccine, a live-virus vaccine which, unlike the Salk vaccine, provides permanent protection.

During his polio researches Salk was made research professor of bacteriology at Pittsburgh (1949-1954) and professor of preventive medicine (1954-1957). In 1957 he was named Commonwealth professor of experimental medicine. In 1963 he opened the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, where he and his colleagues studied problems relating to the body's autoimmunization reaction; that is, why the body rejects foreign material, for example, an organ transplant.

Jonas Salk died in June 1995 at the age of 80 from heart failure. In his lifetime he was able to see the effects of his life's work. By the time Salk died, polio had been virtually disappeared from the United States.


Further Reading on Jonas Edward Salk

Richard Carter, Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk (1966), details the development of the vaccine and emphasizes Salk's dedication to humanity. A harsher view of Salk's role in developing the vaccine is John R. Wilson, Margin of Safety (1963). Several books contain well-balanced sections on Salk, such as Greer Williams, Virus Hunters (1959), and H. J. Parish, A History of Immunization (1965). Information regarding Salk's life and death can be found by reading "The Good Doctor," Time (July 3, 1995) and " When the Vaccine Causes The Polio," Time (October 30, 1995).