This Day in Jewish History

1914: Father of the First Successful Polio Vaccine Is Born

Jonas Salk wanted to pursue law, but his mother drove him toward medicine; his vaccine has helped eradicate polio worldwide.

Yousuf Karsh

October 28, 1914, is the birthdate of Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who became an international hero in 1955, when he announced the successful development of a vaccine that could inoculate humans against the polio virus. In early-1950s United States, poliomyelitis was feared at least as much as Communism, as annual epidemics took thousands of lives, and left tens of thousands of victims – generally children – paralyzed to varying degrees.

Jonas Edward Salk was the eldest of the three sons of Daniel B. Salk and the former Dora Press, who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. Daniel worked in the garment business, designing collars and cuffs. Jonas was born in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York, and grew up in the Bronx. There he attended Townsend Harris High School, a public school for gifted students; that was followed by City College of New York, to which he was admitted at age 15.

In the 1930s and '40s, City College, a public university that was not especially well endowed, was filled with a disproportionate number of ambitious young Jewish men and women, the children of immigrants, who were driven by an extraordinary desire to excel. In those years, according to historian David Oshinsky, the college turned out more future Nobel Prize winners – eight – and scholars who would earn Ph.Ds than any other American public university, with the exception of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mom encourages Salk to pursue medicine

Although Salk had planned to pursue law, his mother pushed him to take the pre-medical curriculum instead, and so he followed CCNY with New York University Medical School, from which he graduated in 1939. Already in medical school, he knew that he wanted to devote his career to research, rather than to clinical work, and he even took off a year to study biochemistry.  Later in life, he explained to an interviewer that he had an ambition from early on “to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.”

During medical school, Salk did an internship in the viral laboratory of Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., who became a mentor, and helped Salk in the research he did in the 1950s that led to the breakthrough with the polio vaccine. This was Salk’s introduction to the field of virus research. Francis, who discovered the Type B influenza virus, had taken the controversial step of exposing mental patients in Michigan to influenza virus, something that even then was ethically questionable.

Salk did his medical internship at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where, after the start of World War II, he led his Jewish colleagues in defying hospital administrators by wearing badges to show their support for the Allies.

From there, he went to work again with Thomas Francis, who was now at the University of Michigan, assisting him in developing a flu vaccine. By 1947, Salk was ready to head his own virology laboratory, at the University of Pittsburgh. There he turned his attention from influenza to polio. In both cases, Salk had the idea of basing the vaccine on a killed version of the virus, which could not infect the person inoculated, but would cause them to develop the antibodies to fight the disease.

Americans mobilize to wipe out polio

Poliomyelitis was known to strike people in the ancient world, but it began to take on monstrous proportions in the U.S. in the decade following the war. There had been efforts in the U.S. prior to World War II to discover a vaccine to prevent people from contracting the deadly virus, but they had resulted in fatalities among some of those on whom they were tested. In 1952, when the epidemic took its highest annual toll, nearly 58,000 people contracted polio, and more than 3,000 died from it.

Salk was approached by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (another name for poliomyelitis), which later became the March of Dimes, to undertake a study that would determine how many types of polio existed. The foundation was the brainchild of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had contracted a paralytic disease in 1921, at age 39. At the time, it was assumed to be polio, although recent analyses of his symptoms and medical history have concluded that his condition, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, was likely a result of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Starting in 1938, the March of Dimes asked citizens via radio advertisements to send 10 cents each into the White House. Within a matter of days, more than 2.6 million letters were received at the executive mansion.

The study Salk carried out concluded that an effective vaccine would need to inoculate people against three different main strains of polio. Research done by John Enders, at Harvard University, pioneered a method for growing the viruses artificially in laboratory conditions, something that was necessary if the vaccine was to be based on killed virus.

From the beginning, there were researchers who thought it was a mistake to try to base the vaccine on the inactivated virus, and that a more effective vaccine would incorporate a live virus, which would have been modified in the lab to make it non-lethal. That model, in fact, served as the basis for the vaccine developed by Albert Sabin, and to the end of their days, the two scientists were openly contemptuous of each other and of their respective medical beliefs. (Both the Salk and the Sabin vaccines were in use for most of the past 60 years, but the latter is now being phased out completely internationally.)

Once Salk had found a way to reproduce the killed virus, and had made a vaccine out of it, it was necessary to undertake a trial. This was in 1954, and it entailed an effort that was carried out by 20,000 physicians and public health officers, and more than 1.8 million schoolchildren participating. This was in addition to the 100 million-plus Americans who had contributed to the March of Dimes over the years. According to writer Paul Offit, “more Americans … participated in the funding, development, and testing of the polio vaccine than had participated in the nomination and election of the president.”

On April 12, 1955, 10 years to the day after the death of President Roosevelt, Salk’s colleague Thomas Francis, Jr., announced at a news conference that the trial had been successful. Not only were 500 people present at the conference, but it was broadcast by closed-circuit to 54,000 doctors in movie theaters across the country.

The reaction in America was akin to the celebration of a national holiday. According to historian William O’Neill, “people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns … drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies."  

Salk was hailed nationally and globally, and won countless awards, although he refused the offer of the City of New York to host a ticker-tape parade in his honor.

Inoculation and eradication

By 1957, 100 million doses of the Salk vaccine had been administered in the U.S., with very few complications resulting. In countries where the vaccine was not yet in use, the epidemic continued to spread. Today, the disease has been largely eradicated internationally, except in parts of countries like Pakistan, where the Taliban have barred the vaccine. Israel’s recent outbreak of polio – a disease that is spread by feces, usually in the water supply – can be partially attributed to the refusal of parents to have their children inoculated.

In 1963, Jonas Salk opened up the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, California. He described it in 1966 as being “a kind of Socratic academy where the supposedly alienated two cultures of science and humanism will have a favorable atmosphere for cross-fertilization.”

Salk spoke about a science called “biophilosophy,” which was intended to use scientific methods to explore ethical, cultural and psychological problems. He also said he believed the universe was unfolding according to certain uniform rules, and that a few highly evolved human beings – among whom he numbered himself – were qualified to being able to understand the direction in which evolution was moving, and help expedite it.

In a 1990 interview Salk explained that, “I have come to recognize evolution not only as an active process that I am experiencing all the time but as something I can guide by the choices I make, by the experiments I design," he said. "I have always sensed this as the next evolutionary step. It's not something of which a great many are capable, but some are."

Jonas Salk died at the age of 80 on June 23, 1995, in La Jolla, California. At the time of his death, he was married to his second wife, Francoise Gilot, the former mistress of Pablo Picasso.