Dr. Jonas Edward Salk - Medical Researcher and developer of the Polio vaccine. 1914 - 1995
Born on 28th October, 1914 in Manhattan to Russian-Jewish parents, Salk entered the City College of New York, initially to study law, but changing his mind on realising his fascination with medical science. He later attended the New York University School of Medicine
Whilst studying at the University he began working with microbiologist Thomas Francis, and in 1938 was invited by him to help conduct research into the influenza virus, to reduce fears of another epidemic after the manner of the 1918 outbreak, which claimed millions of lives. He wondered if it would be possible to treat the virus in a way which would remove its infectious nature, whilst retaining the ability to confer immunity by launching the body's immune system. He was successful in this work, which formed the grounding for his later work with polio.
His meeting Dr. Maurice Brodie, who was already conducting research into a possible polio vaccine, led him to continue his work in this area, and in 1947 Salk became the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. While working there, with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Salk saw an opportunity to develop a vaccine against polio, and devoted himself to this work for the next eight years. He worked with many other researchers, collating information and examining their methods. Finally, he learned enough to produce a sufficiently large quantity of the polio virus, and a means of killing the genetic payload whilst preserving the viral sheath responsible for triggering immune defences.
By 1952, he felt he was ready, and inoculated volunteers (including himself, his wife, and their three sons) with a vaccine made from this killed virus. The results were as he hoped - all who received the vaccine produced antibodies, yet no one became ill, and he concluded that his vaccine was both safe and effective. in 1953, he published his results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and nationwide testing was carried out, with a great deal of interest being shown in his work - the America of the '50s was fearful that every summer would bring thousands more children down with paralysis and possible death.
By 1955 the human trials of Salk's vaccine were complete, and JAMA announced its success - namely, that the polio vaccine effectively protected the subject from the virus. Salk was a national hero and was considered to have worked a miracle. In altruistic style, he declined to patent his work, preferring to see inexpensive mass treatment rather than personal profit. Thomas Francis subsequently directed the mass vaccination of schoolchildren.
(Salk's vaccine required the injection of 'dead' virus material, but Albert Sabin later produced a 'live' vaccine which could be taken orally.)
In 1963, he founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and continued to conduct research and publish books, including Man Unfolding (1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973), World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981), and Anatomy of Reality (1983). In later years, he became heavily involved in researching AIDS, with a view to creating a vaccine, but his work was sadly cut short.
He died on June 23, 1995 of a progressive heart disease.