Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Sewickley, Allegheny County
University of Pittsburgh researcher Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine against polio in 1955.
Awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Jonas Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914. A graduate of New York University College of Medicine in 1939, he joined the lab of Dr. Francis at the University of Michigan in 1942 where he became an associate professor. In 1947 he started as the director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. His career there included stints as professor of bacteriology, preventative medicine, and experimental medicine. In 1963, he became director of the Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He died in San Diego, California on June 23, 1995.
Jonas Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914, to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants Dora and Daniel B. Salk. His parents lacked formal education, but were determined to see Jonas and his two younger brothers succeed. After graduating from Townsend Harris High School, a school for the talented and gifted, Salk entered City College of New York. He originally wanted to study law, but, at his mother's urging, switched to pre-med in his sophomore year. It was not until he started medical school at New York University in 1934 that he realized his passion. The laboratory work there gave new direction to his life. He decided then that he wanted to do research on vaccines that would prevent disease and save lives.
In 1940, shortly after marrying Donna Lindsay, Salk began an internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Three years later, he moved to Michigan and joined the university lab of Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. who began to experiment with a killed-virus influenza vaccine. They were successful when they did a field test with the U.S. Army in occupied post-war Germany. It was the first time Salk had been outside the United States. In 1947, Salk took the job as head of the virus research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. He worked on improving the flu vaccine and began to study the polio virus with hopes of creating a vaccine against that disease as well. Although Salk was most familiar with the influenza virus, in 1951, he received a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, (now the March of Dimes), to research a vaccine for the prevention of polio. He undertook a three-year study on polio types and he concluded that the killed-virus would be a workable vaccine, both safe and effective.
The Salk vaccine, or the Pitt vaccine as he called it, is made by growing three strains of the virus separately in monkey tissue. The virus is separated from the tissue, stored for a week, and killed with formaldehyde; tests are then conducted to make certain that it is dead (thus the term "killed-virus"). However, it was kept intact enough to stimulate the required immune response. A series of three or four injections with the killed virus vaccine was required to complete the immunity process. His experimentation showed that the patient developed immunity to the live disease as a result of the body's earlier reaction to the killed virus. The only drawback was that the vaccine required periodic booster injections. The year 1952 was the worst polio year on record, with more than 57,000 cases nationwide. The public was in a panic and was clamoring for a vaccine.
A year later, Salk announced the development of a trial vaccine for polio. The National Foundation, encouraged by Salk's preliminary results and feeling pressure from the nation's parents, accelerated plans for what would be the largest controlled trial in the history of medicine. The Foundation's Vaccine Advisory Committee and the National Institutes of Health recommended that the field trial be carried out, and the U.S. Public Health Service gave its official approval. Over one million children were vaccinated in national field trials in 1954. They were known as the "Polio Pioneers." This was one of the first large double-blind, placebo-controlled tests that have since become the standard: half of those inoculated received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. Neither the recipient of the shot nor the researchers knew which one they got until the clinical trial was over.
In 1955 the vaccine was determined to be safe for the population at large. Eight years of research later, on April 12, 1955, the world was given the good news that a vaccine developed by Jonas Edward Salk was reliable in the prevention of paralytic poliomyelitis. Six pharmaceutical companies were immediately licensed to produce the vaccine. Finally, after 20 years of being told to be patient because they were addressing the problem and after countless promises that a vaccine was near, millions of Americans would soon have access to the most anticipated vaccine in recent medical history. However, acceptance of the vaccine was a double-edged sword for Salk. While the public celebrated him as a miracle worker, many of his peers in the scientific and medical communities viewed him as nothing more than a lucky opportunist who benefited from the large research grants he received from the National Foundation. Certainly, dozens of worthy researchers had been working much longer than Salk in the field of polio, but they did not have the funding or freedom that Salk had. They believed that the foundation improperly favored Salk and that the foundation's financing was largely responsible for his success. After all, in addition to the large grants, it had financed Salk's laboratory and was quick to support his controversial killed-virus theories. The foundation's leaders provided a high-profile for him in the scientific and medical communities and, detractors believe, exaggerated his contributions to medical science. While they agreed he was a good technician, they dismissed as nonsensical the National Foundation's efforts to promote him as one of the greatest minds in medical history. They claimed that he had not really found anything new; he had just applied the findings of others.
Perhaps some of his critics were just jealous of his success and fame and resented the attention he was receiving. At any rate, the public did not care what his colleagues thought of him. They were ecstatic that a vaccine was on the way. He was beloved because his discovery came at a time when the epidemic was at its peak and the people were grateful. They really admired the fact that he refused to patent his invention. While appearing on a television show after the announcement about the vaccine was made, Salk was asked who owns the patent. Salk replied, "The people own the patent on this vaccine. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Here, truly, was the people's vaccine. In the spirit of working together to conquer this dreaded disease, the public donated millions of dollars through the March of Dimes to help finance the work of the scientists who were spending endless hours in the lab to come up with a successful vaccine. Volunteers enthusiastically signed up to receive the trial vaccinations that would offer the test results the experts needed. Truth be told, the National Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh had considered seeking a patent, but decided not to after Salk voiced some skepticism about the chances of success.
Salk had no intention of profiting from his discovery, but merely wished to see the vaccine spread as widely as possible. Some of the scientific criticism of Salk may have been justified or warranted. Among many of his peers, there was genuine fear and skepticism about his killed-virus vaccine. Some medical colleagues opposed the killed-virus vaccine in favor of a live-virus vaccine that was on the horizon. They also pointed to improper production of the vaccine by some pharmaceutical firms that caused some of those vaccinated to actually contract polio. Last but not least, they expressed particular distain for the circus-like atmosphere and promotion surrounding the announcement of the successful trials of the vaccine.
The world of science has a protocol for releasing such findings: first publish them in a medical journal, and then spread the credit as widely as possible. Instead, Salk took part in a press conference at the University of Michigan that was broadcast on radio and failed to credit anybody, including himself. This ungracious mistake haunted him the rest of his career. Virus researchers consider themselves a tight-knit group, but Salk was always the outsider. The refusal of the National Academy of Sciences to admit him to membership spoke volumes about their opinion of him. They justified the snub by pointing out that he was not original, only lucky that he was first with the vaccine. This is the reason most often cited for him not receiving the Nobel Prize. That honor went to Harvard's John Enders who had completed the key piece of research, available to all, years earlier. It was his team that figured out how to grow polio in test tubes and, thus, provided a sufficient supply of the virus to all the researchers needing it for their work.
While the scientific community may have snubbed him, government and the general public showered him with praise and awards. He was given Pennsylvania's highest honorÄü?the Bronze Medal for Meritorious Service. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, which is presented for singular acts of exceptional service and for lifetime achievement. Perhaps the greatest honor he received was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award for exceptional meritorious service. Even one prestigious scientific journal, Nature, hailed the development of the first polio vaccine as one of the top 5 scientific achievements in the twentieth century. In 1963, Salk founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, an innovative center for medical and scientific research. He left his position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964 to work full-time at his institute. He continued to conduct research, study infectious diseases, and publish books. His focus was working on an AIDS vaccine. By the time Salk died of heart failure on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80, polio had virtually disappeared from the United States.
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