Jonas Salk

Polio Vaccine

Jonas Edward Salk, developer of the first successful vaccine for polio, was born on October 28, 1914 in New York City. The oldest son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Salk worked after school to help pay for his education at the City College of New York, and then the New York University School of Medicine. He was the first member of his family to attend college. He graduated from NYU in 1938.

At NYU Salk had begun working with microbiologist Thomas Francis, Jr., who was looking for an influenza vaccine. They worked together and actually developed a vaccine that was used in the military during World War II. In 1942, Salk went to the University of Michigan on a research fellowship and soon advanced to the position of assistant professor of epidemiology, or, the study of the causes and control of epidemics. He continued his research in the field and began teaching at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947.

While working there, Salk developed a relationship with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes). Since the turn of the century, polio outbreaks had grown more frequent— 57,628 cases were recorded in 1952. He saw a great need for a vaccine against polio, and decided to devote his research to that cause for the next eight years. His hard work paid off. In 1952, he announced the development of a trial vaccine for Polio, or poliomyelitis.

His vaccine was composed of "killed" polio virus, which retained the ability to immunize without the risk of infecting the patient. He first inoculated volunteers, including himself, his wife, and their three sons, with a polio vaccine made from this killed virus. Everyone who received the test vaccine began producing antibodies to the disease, yet no one became ill. In 1954 he published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and nationwide testing was carried out. Salk's former mentor Thomas Francis, Jr., directed the vaccination of nearly two million schoolchildren, and the results proved Salk's polio vaccine to be safe and effective.

News of the discovery was made public in April, 1955, and Salk was considered a miracle worker. He had no desire to profit personally from the discovery, but merely wished to see the vaccine disseminated as widely as possible. In 1963, he established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla in 1963. He had received a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation and support from the March of Dimes, and considered a number of sites for the Institute. But in 1960, San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, who had had polio, enticed Salk to San Diego, offering him 70 acres of land just west of the University of California at San Diego. Salk decided that was the place to go. He left his position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964 to dedicate full-time to his institute and the study of infectious diseases.

A few years later, a vaccine made from "live" polio virus by Albert Sabin gained widespread use because it could be administered orally, while Salk's vaccine required injection. The few new cases of polio reported in the United States in recent years were actually caused by the "live" vaccine which was intended to prevent them. Salk's vaccine has recently begun to replace the Sabin (oral) vaccine in countries like the United States, where the polio virus has been eliminated. Salk's last years were spent searching for a vaccine against AIDS. He died on June 23, 1995 at 80 years of age. He was director of the Salk Institute until his death.