- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Jonas Edward Salk

Born  1914-10-28
Died  1995-05-23

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    American medical scientist, born October 28, 1914, New York City; died June 23, 1995, La Jolla, California.

    Biography of Jonas Edward Salk

    Jonas Edvard Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914 to Daniel and Dora Salk, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father worked in the garment district. He had two younger brothers. The family moved to Bronx. At 13 Salk entered Townsend High School, a public school for intellectually gifted students. 

    After graduating from high school, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Science, Salk enrolled in New York University to study medicine. This University did not discriminate against Jews, unlike several of the surrounding medical schools. Cornell, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale—had rigid quotas in place." Yale, for example, accepted 76 applicants, in 1935, out of a pool of 501. Although 200 of the applicants were Jewish, only five got in. During his years at New York University Medical School, Salk worked as a laboratory technician during the school year and as a camp counselor in the summer.

    During his medical studies, Salk stood out from his peers, not just because of his academic prowess, but because he had decided he did not want to practice medicine. Instead, he became absorbed in research, even taking a year off to study biochemistry. He later focused more of his studies on bacteriology which had replaced medicine as his primary interest. He said his desire was to help humankind in general rather than single patients. 

    Salk received his M.D. in 1939 from New York University School of Medicine. From 1940 to 1942 he interned at the Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. In 1941, during his postgraduate work in virology, Salk chose to work in the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. (1900–1969), at the University of Michigan. Francis had recently joined the faculty of the medical school after working for the Rockefeller Foundation, where he had discovered the type B influenza virus. Francis was conducting immunology studies based on killed virus. The two-month stint in Francis's lab was Salk's first introduction to the world of virology—and he was hooked.  

    Salk joined Francis as a fellow at the National Research Council at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. There he became part of a group that was working to develop an immunization against influenza.

     “The influenza virus had just been discovered about a few years before that. And, I saw the opportunity at that time to test the question as to whether we could destroy the virus infectivity and still immunize. And so, by carefully designed experiments, we found it was possible to do so.” 

    Salk was a research lecturer at the University of Michigan 1944-1946 and Dozent 1946-1947.
    At this time, annual epidemics of Pparalytic poliomyelitis (its formal name) in the U.S. were increasingly devastating. The 1952 U.S. epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. Most of the victims were children. Polio was the most frightning public health problem of the postwar era. It has been said that apart from the atomic bomb, it was probably America's greatest fear.

    Polio was a medical oddity that baffled researchers for years. It took a long time to learn that the virus was transmitted by fecal matter and secretions of the nose and throat. It entered the victim orally, established itself in the intestines, and then traveled to the brain or spinal cord. At the start of the 20th century, during the 1914 and 1919 polio epidemics in the U.S., physicians and nurses made house-to-house searches to identify all infected persons. Children suspected of being infected were taken to hospitals and a child's family was quarantined until that child was no longer potentially infectious, even if it meant the family could not go to their child's funeral if the child died in the hospital.[22]

    As a result, scientists raced to find a way to prevent or cure the disease. The world’s most recognized victim of the disease was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1938 founded he National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as March of Dimes  Foundation. 

    In 1947 Salk became associate professor of bacteriology and head of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He worked with scientists at other universities in a program to classify the various strains of polio virus. He then demonstrated that killed virus of each of the three, although incapable of producing the disease, could induce antibody formation in monkeys. 

    In 1948, Salk undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. He saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio. The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine was, according to O'Neill, "the most elaborate program of its kind in history, involving 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers." Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial.  

    In 1949 the American scientists Frederick C. Robbins (1916–2003), John Franklin Enders (1897–1985) and Thomas Huckle Weller (1915–2008) developed a method for growing the polio virus in various tissues.

    In 1952 field tests of killed-virus vaccine were conducted, Jonas Salk tested his killed polio vaccine in many ways. Some of his first tests were done on monkeys. He successfully vaccinated thousands of monkeys, but also used them as hosts to grow the virus, so he could make his vaccine [Klein]. He first tested his vaccine by giving it to people who used to have polio, but recovered. Next, he gave it to volunteers who had never had polio before. They all began to produce antibodies, with previously infected people creating a high amount of them. Through all of the testing of the vaccine, no one got infected with polio.

    On July 2, 1952, assisted by the staff at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, Jonas Salk injected 43 children with his killed-virus vaccine. first on children who had recovered from polio and then on subjects who had not had the disease; both tests were successful in that the children's antibody levels rose significantly and no subjects contracted polio from the vaccine. In November 1953, at a conference in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, he said, "I will be personally responsible for the vaccine." He announced that his wife and three sons had been among the first volunteers to be inoculated with his vaccine.[31] Jonas Salk tested the vaccine on about one million children, who were known as the polio pioneers. This testing started in 1954, when polio was destroying more American children than any other communicable disease,

    The findings were published the following year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 
    On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan declared the vaccine to be safe and effective." The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Roosevelt. Five hundred people, including 150 press, radio, and television reporters, filled the room; 16 television and newsreel cameras stood on a long platform at the back, and 54,000 physicians, sitting in movie theaters across the country, watched the broadcast on closed-circuit television. Eli Lilly and Company paid $250,000 to broadcast the event. Americans turned on their radios to hear the details, department stores set up loudspeakers, and judges suspended trials so everyone in the courtroom could hear. Europeans listened on the Voice of America. Paul Offit writes about the event:

    After further investigations, in 1954 mass field trial was conducted on a nationwide scale, almost two million children were vaccinated, and the vaccine, injected by needle, was found to safely reduce the incidence of polio. On April 12, 1955, the vaccine was released for use in the United States. The Salk vaccine has later been used all over the world and has played a major role in the steady decrease in the occurrence of poliomyelitis since the 1950’s. 

    In 1957 Salk was appointed professor of experimental medicine at Pittsburgh, and in 1963 became a fellow and director of the Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, later renamed the Salk institute. Among many other honours, Salk was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.  
    In 1960 the American microbiologist Albert Bruce Sabin developed a vaccine based on live virus. For this he used weakened polio substances that had lost its virulence, and then grew them in cell cultures. The resulting attenuated virus was taken with the help of a piece od sugar in the famous swallow-vaccine Although the Salk vaccine was introduced i Germany as early as in 1956, relatively few were vaccinated before 1962, when the oral Sabin-vaccine was generally recommended. The number of new infection then went drastically down. The world-wide reduction of polio infections is largely due to the comprehensive vaccination programmw with Sabin vaccine. 

    In 1956 Salk won the Lasker award. He campaigned for mandatory vaccination, claiming that public health should be considered a "moral commitment."  His sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as rapidly as possible, with no interest in personal profit. When asked who owned the patent to it, Salk said, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun? In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which is today a center for medical and scientific research, focusing on multiple sclerosis and cancer. The center is also world famous for its architecture. Salk served as the center's director until 1975, and he then became its founding director. Continuing to do research, Salk studied AIDS and HIV later in his career.

    Salk was married to social worker Donna Lindsay from 1939 to 1968. The couple had three sons together: Peter, Darrell and Jonathan. In 1970, he married artist Francoise Gilot, who had previously been romantically involved with Pablo Picasso.

    Jonas Salk died of heart failure on June 23, 1995, at his home in La Jolla, California. He will always be remembered as the man who stopped polio.  


    Man unfolding. 1971

    Survival of the Wisest. Written with his son Jonathan. 1973.

    World Population and Human Values: A New Reality. 1981.

    Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason. 1983. 

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