Jonas Edward Salk
American research scientist

1914 - 1995

Jonas Edward Salk, an American research scientist, worked in the field of preventive medicine. He gained his greatest recognition for developing a vaccine that became the first effective weapon in preventing poliomyelitis (polio). Albert B. Sabin later developed an effective oral polio vaccine.

In addition to his work on poliomyelitis, Salk also made significant contributions to the understanding of influenza, a severe infectious disease. Both poliomyelitis and influenza are caused by viruses, the microorganisms which are the smallest germs.

Vast amounts of material about immunity had accumulated since "the golden age of bacteriology" in the last half of the 1800's. Salk had to distill this information and apply the findings to his polio vaccine. He found it necessary to weaken the virus with formalin without knocking out its ability to stimulate the body to produce protective antibodies. Since each type of microorganism has its own antibodies, Salk's vaccine contained all three polio virus types recognized at the time.

The Salk vaccine. In 1953, Salk announced the development of a trial vaccine. The viruses the vaccine contained had been killed with a formaldehyde solution. Among the first to receive the vaccine were Salk, his wife, and their three sons. The vaccine was found safe, and there was evidence that it was effective.

It was further tested during a mass trial on 1,830,000 schoolchildren in 1954. This trial was sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation), which had given $1,700,000 to Salk and his researchers for their project. The vaccine was pronounced safe and effective in April 1955. Salk received many honors, including a citation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a congressional gold medal for "great achievement in the field of medicine." He refused all cash awards and returned to his laboratory to improve the vaccine.

His life. Salk was born in New York City, the oldest of a garment industry worker's three sons. He helped pay for his education by working after school and earning scholarships. He graduated from the New York University School of Medicine in 1939. There he did research with viruses in the laboratory of Thomas Francis, Jr.

In 1942, Salk went to the University of Michigan on a research fellowship and advanced to the position of assistant professor of epidemiology (the study of the causes and control of epidemics). Francis had become head of the department of epidemiology at Michigan's school of public health. Salk worked with Francis to develop influenza vaccines. Later, Francis directed the evaluation of the mass tests of the Salk antipolio vaccine.

Salk taught at the University of Pittsburgh from 1947 to 1964. In 1963, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies was established in La Jolla, California. Salk served as director of the institute.

Contributor: Audrey B. Davis, Ph.D., Curator of Medical Sciences, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Additional resources

Hargrove, Jim. The Story of Jonas Salk and the Discovery of the Polio Vaccine. Childrens Pr., 1990. Younger readers.

Sherrow, Victoria. Jonas Salk. Facts on File, 1993.

Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine. Morrow, 1990.


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