Remembering Jonas Salk – The Man Who Took on Polio


In the hallowed portals of biomedicine, the name of Jonas Salk will forever remain etched. For, this Jewish-American physician and medical researcher successfully developed the first effective Polio vaccine. He also founded the renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where several successful research works on cancer treatment and HIV prevention has been conducted till date.

Remembering Jonas Salk – The Man Who Took on Polio

Poliomyelitis was once a serious problem in the United States. This infectious and potentially fatal disease paralysed both children and adults. In fact, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered due to polio along with other 60, 000 Americans in 1952.

The disease struck thousands of children and it inspired fear among many. Since there was no possible way to prevent it, people were traumatised due to this fatal disease. However, in 1955, virologist Jonas Salk invented the first effective polio vaccine and became a worldwide hero.

Everybody knows Salk as the man behind the polio vaccine. But, there are several other unknown facts about Salk and the vaccine that may surprise you.

  1. Polio was barely the deadliest disease in the 20th century.

According to David M.Oshinsky, the Pulitzer Prize winner of the book ‘An American Story’, Polio wasn’t the raging epidemic as depicted in the media during the 1940s and 1950s. During the time, many children died in accidents and several succumbed to cancer. Some of them were consumed by poverty.

Oshinsky remarks that polio led to the unavoidable fear among people because it struck without warning. Researchers could not find out how it spread from person to person. After World War II, a survey shows that the only thing Americans feared more than the polio was the nuclear war.

  1. Salk’s parents had limited education, but, they had big dreams for their children.

Salk’s father, Daniel, was the son of the Jewish immigrants and he came from America to settle in Eastern Europe. Daniel got graduated from elementary school and not high school. After the graduation, he worked at a garment factory as a designer of women’s blouses.

Salk’s mother, Dora, arrived in the US from Russia in 1901 and had no education. Due to their limited education, Salk’s parents encouraged him and his younger brothers to continue their schooling. They urged their kids to pursue higher levels of education no matter what.

  1. Franklin Roosevelt played a huge role in the vaccine’s development

While vacationing at his summer house on the Campobello Island, the rising political star Franklin D. Roosevelt was affected by polio in 1921. His legs were completely paralysed due to the disease. However, five years after entering the White House, he helped in developing the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. This foundation was later renamed as the March of Dimes Foundation.

The March of Dimes Foundation later became the main funding for the trials of Salk’s vaccines. Roosevelt’s former Wall Street law partner Basil O’Connor made use of the star power of several celebrities including Mickey Rooney and the Poster Children. It earned so much recognition by the late 1940s that it raised more than $20 million per year.

  1. Salk got rejected from several labs after graduating from medical school.

Jonas Salk graduated from a reputed medical school at New York University. After completing his residency training, he applied to several laboratories to work in the field of medical research. Instead of working as a regular physician and treating patients, he opted for research on the Influenza vaccine. He began studying the vaccine from his medical school.

Several reports suggested that he was rejected from multiple laboratories due to the quotas that discriminated against the Jewish people. But, he wasn’t discouraged. In his Academy of Achievement interview, he said “My attitude was always to keep open and to keep scanning as I think that’s how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid and that’s not my inclination.”

  1. Salk challenged the prevailing medical orthodoxy during his vaccine development.

During that time, most of the scientists believed that live viruses were mandatory to develop effective viruses. Challenging this medical belief and practise, he successfully developed a vaccine from a killed virus. First, he grew samples of a living virus and then deactivated them by adding formaldehyde. This chemical prevents the virus from reproducing. When he injected this vaccine into the bloodstream, it tricked the immune system to produce antibodies right away.

However, this approach was considered to be dangerous by many researchers such as Albert Sabin, the Polish-born virologist. He even belittled Salk as ‘a mere kitchen chemist’. This approach of Salk to prepare a vaccine was time-consuming. Hence, the lawyer O’Connor became impatient and put the March of Dimes resources behind Salk.

  1. Salk tested the polio vaccine on his own family and himself

During the early 1950s, Salk used monkeys, children in Pittsburgh and himself to test the polio vaccine. After he was confirmed about the safety and efficiency of the vaccine, Salk injected his three sons and wife, Donna using syringes that he boiled on the stove. In 1953, Salk described the preliminary results of the human testing of his Polio vaccine in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

By June 1954, almost 1.5 million adults and children volunteered to be treated with the Salk’s vaccine in a double-blind trial. The entire event was sponsored by the March of Dimes. Finally, Salk’s vaccine was licensed on 12th April 1955. The media reported that the national trial of Salk’s vaccine was a huge success and several people celebrated the news.

  1. A contaminated batch of the Salk’s vaccine killed 11 people initially

Weeks after the Salk’s vaccine was declared safe, more than 200 vaccines were found to be contaminated with live virus strains manufactured by the Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California. Almost 9 million doses of vaccine were produced in the year 1955. It was almost impossible to keep track of all the samples by the March of Dimes. As the vaccine was rushed to the common masses, the federal government did not provide sufficient supervision of the major drug companies.

Owing to the sudden death of 11 people, the United States surgeon general instructed all the vaccinations to halt immediately. However, Americans continued to vaccinate their children and themselves. Except for this Cutter incident, there wasn’t a single polio case related to the Salk vaccine.

So these were the most surprising and rare known facts of Jonas Salk and the Polio vaccine. After Sabin’s oral vaccine became available in 1962, it immediately dominated the Salk’s vaccine because it was cheap and easy to use. However, the oral vaccine used live virus strains and that caused harmful effects. Hence, WHO urged people to use only the Salk’s vaccine.

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