Profiles in Greatness – Jonas Salk

UPDATED: August 28, 2008
PUBLISHED: August 28, 2008

Through the 1950s, the scythe of polio cut a terrifying swath through society. Nobody was safe. The disease struck down pauper and president alike, crippling and even killing its victims.

Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine vanquished the terror of polio, and he was hailed as a miracle worker.

Early on, Salk and his colleagues achieved successes in developing a flu vaccine based on strains of the virus that had been killed. Exposure to the killed virus was sufficient to trigger the body’s immune response. Later, in researching a polio vaccine, he pursued the same logic—going against conventional wisdom that immunity could only result from at least a mild infection from the live virus.

Salk’s efforts attracted the attention and funding from The National Foudation for Infantile Paralysis (later called the March of Dimes), which enabled him to work full time on polio. In 1952, the same year more than 57,000 cases of polio were recorded in the United States, Salk tested the vaccine on himself and other volunteers. After more tests nationwide, the vaccine was declared successful in 1955.

In 1963, Salk founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in Southern California, and he continued to conduct research and publish books. He dedicated his last years to searching for an AIDS vaccine, and died in 1995 at the age of 80.

Overcoming disadvantage.

Salk was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City and the first in his family to attend college. “My parents were more than supportive. My mother had no schooling. She came to this country from Russia in 1901. She immediately, as a young girl, began to work, you know, to help support the family,” Salk told an interviewer. “She wanted her children to have more than she had, so she lived her life and invested her life through her children.”

Following your instincts.

A nagging question from medical school propelled Salk’s research that ultimately resulted in the polio vaccine. Salk was perplexed by professors’ teachings that seemed inconsistent— that a chemically treated toxin was effective in immunizing against tetanus and diphtheria, but with other viruses, immunity only resulted from exposure to the live virus. Salk questioned his professors, but didn’t get satisfactory answers. So he sought his own, leading to one of the most dramatic breakthroughs in medical history.

Making a difference.

Salk chose a career in medicine because he thought it held the greatest opportunity to help more people. His desire “was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.” After developing the polio vaccine, he declined to patent it so it could be available to as many people as possible. Being open to possibilities.

At the end of his first year of medical school, Salk’s chemistry professor asked him to drop out for a year and work with him in research. Salk wanted to remain with his class, but ultimately decided to work with the professor. “It was not an accomplished year, but it was the year that initiated a process… setting out on a path,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that sometimes, at a turning point, what’s important is to let go of the way you were going, or the way you are, to explore a new direction.”

Taking risks.

“Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do and what not to do.”

Getting past setbacks.

After medical school, Salk was turned down by two different research institutes. About the rejections, he said, “I know how disappointed we all are not to get what we want. But the question is, Should that discourage us? That was not my attitude. My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that’s how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that’s not my inclination.”

Life with purpose.

“Socrates said, ‘Know thyself,’ meaning, ‘Know the purpose of life that you are inclined to serve, that you are drawn to. Do what makes your heart leap rather than simply follow some style or fashion.’ It’s necessary to have a purpose in life,” Salk said. “Take good care of that purpose.”

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