“There’s no such thing as failure; there’s just giving up too soon,” once said Dr. Jonas Salk. In the early twentieth century, polio devastated many communities around the world, including Texas, prompting closures and quarantines connected to outbreaks, gripping communities in terror. One determined team of scientists led by Salk ended this nightmare for the nation and the world with the development of a polio vaccine.
Salk was born in New York City in October 1914. His father, the son of Jewish immigrants, was a garment worker. His mother was a Russian immigrant. He had two younger brothers, one of whom became a veterinarian and the other became a psychologist. The future physician was extremely bright and extremely curious about the world as a youth and was enrolled in an academically gifted high school program at age 13. Friends and colleagues described him as a perfectionist in his studies and his research with a disciplined focus on his work. He was a voracious reader, but he was almost always described as warm, optimistic, devoutly moral, and compassionate.
Upon graduation from high school at age 15, Salk entered City College of New York. He briefly considered a career as a lawyer, but his mother convinced him to go into a career in medicine instead. With this career change in mind, he earned a bachelors degree in chemistry at age 19 in 1933. Salk then enrolled at New York University’s school of medicine. Money caused a lot of problems with his studies initially, forcing him to work a series of jobs ranging from camp counselor to lab technician while his parents borrowed money to help him continue his studies. He worked as a teacher and researcher for a year. Eventually, he was able to get a series of scholarships to help him afford to complete his education. Salk graduated from medical school in 1939.
He accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947. In the meantime, polio, a viral infection that caused death or paralysis, continued to haunt the world. An outbreak in the Texas Panhandle infected more than 1,200 in 1943. A Houston outbreak infected 313 in 1948. Rehabilitation centers were established in the state to help those partially paralyzed. Because it often struck children, it was sometimes called infantile paralysis. The disease struck thousands of people, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his younger years.
In 1948, officials with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later the March of Dimes) approached Salk to research the disease. After pulling together a team of researchers and finding further private grants to fund his research, Salk produced a vaccine derived from dead viruses by early 1952 and began testing. The initial results were promising. That same year, the nation’s worst polio epidemic ever erupted, prompting the closures of public swimming pools and many other public facilities. More than 58,000 people were infected, resulting in 3,145 dead and more than 21,000 paralyzed. Salk and his team then used the vaccine on themselves and their families.
In 1954, based on this initial success, a nationwide test began, with more than 1.8 million volunteers, with the vaccine approved in 1955. By 1961, a disease that once struck more than 20,000 annually was reduced to 161 cases. In the meantime, Salk became a household name. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees and was routinely sought by reporters for his insights into medicine and science.
The value of the Salk vaccine in dollar terms has been estimated at nearly $8 billion in 2020 dollars; but for Salk, the value in human terms was beyond measure. He refused to patent the vaccine and made the research materials available to doctors around the globe. He gave up the money in order to save lives. The cure, Salk said, belonged to the people of the world. Once questioned why he did not patent the vaccine, Salk replied, “Can you patent the Sun?”
He founded the Salk Institute in California in 1960 as a center for research into infectious diseases to develop vaccines and treatments. It has included several Nobel Prize winners among its ranks of researchers.
In the 1980s, prompted by the growing AIDS epidemic, he began working on an AIDS vaccine. While his efforts did not produce a workable vaccine, he was able to develop a number of promising immune system therapies. “I have had dreams, and I have had nightmares; but I conquered my nightmares because of my dreams,” once said Salk. He died at age 80 in 1995.
The last case of polio occurred in the United States in 1979. The entire western hemisphere was declared free of polio by 1994. Because of aggressive vaccination efforts through medical organizations and private volunteers, including civic groups such as local Rotary Clubs, polio outbreaks have been eliminated in all but two nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan.