Salk, Jonas Edward (1914–1995)

Citation metadata

Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: October 28, 1914 in New York, New York, United States
Died: June 23, 1995 in La Jolla, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Virologist
Other Names: Salk, Jonas E.; Salk, Jonas Edward
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Page 645

Salk, Jonas Edward (1914–1995)


Jonas Salk's major accomplishment was his development of the first safe and effective vaccine against polio. With his collaborator, Thomas Francis, Jr., Salk pioneered the Page 646  |  Top of Articleuse of a “killed virus” as a vaccine antigen. Salk's discovery made him a national hero. He also helped create a killed-virus flu vaccine and conducted epidemiological research. In 1960 he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, a facility dedicated to cutting-edge research.

Born on October 28, 1914, in New York City, Salk was the eldest son of Orthodox Jewish emigrants from Poland. His father, Daniel Salk, was a garment worker with a talent for and a love of drawing. Dora Press, Salk's mother, took care to cultivate the considerable intellectual gifts the young Salk displayed.

Enrolled at the City College of New York, Salk received his bachelor's degree in science in 1933, when he was only 19. Although he had originally planned to pursue law, Salk had been captivated by biology during his undergraduate studies. In 1933 he entered New York University's School of Medicine, where he met his future collaborator, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr. He obtained his M.D. in 1939 and continued working for Francis while fulfilling a two-year internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He also married Donna Lindsay in 1939, and the couple had three sons. After his first marriage ended, Salk wed Françoise Gilot (Pablo Picasso's first wife) in 1967.

Upon finishing his internship, Salk accepted a National Research Council fellowship and followed Francis to the University of Michigan, where the two developed a killed-virus vaccine for the flu in 1943. This achievement was significant. The killed virus was able to destroy live flu viruses at the same time that it stimulated the body to produce antibodies to ward off future infection. In 1946 Salk accepted a position as assistant professor of epidemiologyat the University of Michigan, but he left for the University of Pittsburgh's Virus Research Laboratory the following year. He published papers on polio, some of which were read by Daniel Basil O'Connor, the director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a well-funded organization devoted to eradicating polio. O'Connor contributed considerable money to Salk's fledgling attempts to devise a polio vaccine.

At the University of Pittsburgh Salk joined researchers from other institutions to classify the more than 100 strains of polio virus. In 1951 he felt certain that all polio viruses could be arranged into three categories. He built on the work of ALBERT BRUCE SABIN, JOHN FRANKLIN ENDERS, THOMAS HUCKLE WELLER, and FREDERICK CHAPMAN ROBBINS, each of whom played a part in making cultivation of the polio virus easier in a lab. Salk grew samples of the three types in cultures of monkey kidneys, then exposed the virus in formaldehyde for 13 days, thereby killing it. He felt certain that the killed-virus technique would be safer than the live-virus method advocated by Sabin and others. In 1952 Salk began to administer his killed-virus vaccine to children—first to those who already had the disease, later to those who had never contracted it. In both cases he found that the vaccine definitively elevated antibody levels. These initial positive results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1953. The following year Salk spearheaded the implementation of a massive inoculation program, with 1 million children participating. On April 12, 1955, Salk's vaccine was pronounced both potent and safe. A tragedy occurred that June, however, when 200 children contracted polio from the vaccine because one of the participating labs had used the wrong strain of the virus. This problem was quickly corrected and did not recur. In 1960 Salk founded his eponymous institute.

Salk's vaccine accounted for a 96 percent reduction in the number of cases of polio in the United States by the summer of 1961, and he was hailed as a hero. His chief scientific competitor, Sabin, created a live-virus vaccine, which gradually supplanted Salk's innovation because it could be administered orally. In addition to many other awards, Salk received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. He died of heart failure in 1995.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100783