An end to the threat of the crippling childhood illness polio (poliomyelitis) came a step closer when an American scientist Jonas Salk developed an effective vaccine. In April 1954, public trials began with the mass inoculation of more than a million schoolchildren and, despite initial setbacks, Jonas Salk is widely attributed with virtual worldwide eradication of the disease.
Early Life of Jonas Salk
Born in 1914 to Orthodox-Jewish immigrants, Jonas Edward Salk grew up in New York. Although uneducated, his parents encouraged him in his studies, a fact which undoubtedly helped him to become the first family member to go to college. Reputed to have uttered, ‘dirt, dirt!’ as his first words, his initial interest lay with law rather than the study of germs. However, after commencing his studies at the City College of New York, his attention soon turned to medical science, particularly virology.
Jonas Salk became a medical student and later a researcher at the University of Michigan, where he studied viruses and ways to vaccinate against them. His development of a vaccine to combat influenza among US troops fighting in World War II, gave him valuable experience in working at speed under pressure, a skill which proved critical for his later success against the polio virus.
Polio Epidemic Sweeps North America
In the 1940s and early 1950s, as a polio epidemic swept across the USA, it posed a constant health-threat in many other countries too. A surprising number of polio survivors can be counted today, including the photographer Lord Snowden, golfer Jack Nicklaus and the actor Donald Sutherland. The potentially fatal viral infection, which destroys nerves and can leave survivors paralysed, became all parents’ worst nightmare.
‘Everyone was frightened. The mothers were frightened and they made the children frightened,’one woman recalls from a time when 40,000 people a year contracted the virus. Relentless media campaigns featuring sad-faced children in leg braces did little to quell these fears and the slogan of the Infantile Paralysis Foundation, ‘Please give to the March of Dimes,’ was aired at every opportunity.
Amid growing public hysteria, the race was on to develop a reliable polio vaccine and in 1947, Salk, now head of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, began his own investigation. During his years of research, he brought together the findings of many other scientists, a move that caused resentment among some of his peers. Generous funding from the Infantile Paralysis Foundation was regarded as favouritism by his competitors and did little to improve his standing.
Salk Family Were First Recipients to Test Polio Vaccine
By consolidating existing techniques, Salk soon found a way to produce large amounts of the polio virus and used formaldehyde to kill it so that it remained intact enough to produce antibodies in humans. In 1952, his wife and children joined him as the first volunteers to be injected with the new vaccine, created using this ‘killed’ virus. Once tests results demonstrated that antibodies had been produced without making anybody ill, full scale trials could begin in earnest.
From April 1954, thousands of schoolchildren received the Salk vaccination and despite initial problems from a poorly made batch, the tests were a great success. A woman remembers receiving her injection at eight years old. ‘We went and got the vaccine and then it was over. That was the fix. There was no more polio, no more worry.’ The result was a dramatic reduction in new cases of the virus and by 1957, ninety additional countries had adopted the Salk vaccine.
Jonas Salk’s well publicised success annoyed other researchers in the field, even though he never sought personal recognition and subsequently refused to patent his discovery. Ironically, his most notable rival, Albert Sabin, went on to produce a cheaper, orally administered vaccine, manufactured from the live virus.
Licensed in 1962, it was soon adopted in favour of Salk’s original injection and both are still used throughout the world. This alienation from the medical community did not go unnoticed and when, in 1963, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, Salk joked, ‘I couldn’t possibly have become a member of this institute if I hadn’t founded it myself.’
Salk Also Sought Vaccine for AIDS
Jonas Salk continued to study infectious disease at the institute and became a great advocate of the vaccination programme, working tirelessly to promote his message on the world stage. He also went on to write books and work with his sons who shared his interest in science and medicine. Jonas Salk died on June 23rd, 1995 at the age of 80, leaving uncompleted his final quest to find a vaccine for the AIDS virus.
Polio is now extremely rare in those parts of the world where vaccination programmes have been established. The World Health Organization is working daily to eradicate the disease and the Salk polio vaccine continues to play an important role in the fulfilment of this goal.
Although his achievements remain unacknowledged within certain quarters of the medical community, Jonas Edward Salk will always be remembered by a generation of grateful parents as, ‘The man who saved the children.’