Jonas Salk: Inventor Of The First Safe & Effective Polio Vaccine

Last week in “A History of Television & Future: Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality,” I briefly joked of the extreme heat produced by early television production light sources. The specific example cited was with  Dinah Shore, recorded to have been left with mascara melting and seeping into her eyes while singing in front of a piano.  Omitted was that at 18-months old, she suffered from polio which left her paralyzed in her right leg. 

Today I’ll attempt to share the life and work of Jonas Salk, credited with inventing the first safe and effective polio vaccine.

Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.

~Jonas Salk

Poliomyelitis — also called infantile paralysis — is a viral disease which may affect the spinal cord causing muscle weakness and paralysis, especially in the legs.

The first known recording dates from 1403-1365 BC — discovered on an Egyptian stele — and shows a priest with a walking stick and shortened, withered leg. In 1840, Jakob von Heine published the first medical report on the disease, marking the first time the illness was recognized as a clinical disease. The first major recorded outbreak of polio in the U.S. occurs in Vermont in 1894 with 132 cases.

The eldest of three sons born to Daniel and Dora Salk, virologist Jonas Salk earned his medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine in 1939 and became a scientist physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. In 1942, he attended the University of Michigan on a research fellowship where he studied flu viruses with mentor and fellow virologist, Thomas Francis, Jr.

In 1947, Salk is recruited by the University of Pittsburgh to develop a virus research program and receives grant to begin a polio typing project. Sorting the 125 strains of the virus, he found that they fell into three basic types and knew that a vaccine would have to incorporate all three to protect against polio. He uses tissue culture method of growing the virus, developed in 1949 by John Enders, Frederick Robbins, and Thomas Weller at Harvard University (earning them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1954).

That same year (1954), more than 1.8 million children were recruited who became known as the Polio Pioneers. 650,000 children received vaccine, 750,000 received a placebo (a solution made to look like vaccine, but containing no virus), and 430,000 served as controls and had neither.

The Salk polio vaccine trial  stands as the largest peacetime mobilization of volunteers in American history, requiring the efforts of 325,000 doctors, nurses, educators and private citizens — with no money from federal grants or pharmaceutical companies. Financing came from donations made to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis — the forerunner of the March of Dimes — created in 1938 by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt who was left paralyzed by the disease at the age of 39.

On April 12, 1955, the 10th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death — broadcasting both on television and radio — Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. announced to the world that the Salk polio vaccine was up to 90% effective in preventing polio.

By 1962, the number of polio cases in the United States had dropped to less than 1,000 reported cases from the over 38,000 known cases in 1954. Salk never patented nor earned any money from his discovery, preferring instead that it be distributed as widely as possible.

When a journalist asked him who owned the patent, Salk responded: “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Similarly, Albert Sabin born in 1906 in Bialystok, Russia (now part of Poland), conducted research demonstrating polio viruses not only grow in the nervous tissues, but also live in the small intestines. He pioneered the more easily administered oral polio vaccine (OPV). “In the first five months of 1959, ten million children in the Soviet Union received the Sabin oral vaccine.”

In 1963, Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California. San Diego Mayor Charles Dail, who’d been a victim of polio himself, enticed Salk offering 70 acres of land west of the University of California.

Separated from his first wife, Donna Lindsay, Salk married Frangoise Gilot in 1970 — a French painter who formerly had a relationship with Pablo Picasso.

Having said that he would hold a news conference to satisfy the curiosity about the marriage, he changed his mind following the wedding, explaining, “I really don’t have anything to say.”

Salk spent his last years searching for a vaccine against AIDS and died on June 23, 1995 at the age of 80.

There are now only three countries where polio has yet to be fully eradicated — they include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Global incidence of polio cases has decreased by 99%.

Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.

~Jonas Salk

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