Dr. Jonas Salk

by Mindi Threlkeld

EDP 380, Fall 1998




An American hero once said, "Many wise individuals have had no formal education.... They possess a powerful intuitive faculty and are able to learn from experience, from what they observe" (Pamplin, Jr. and Eisler 127). Although not entirely indicative of his own past, this American hero was Dr. Jonas Salk and he believed that education was not always the key to success. The great innovator believed that the answers to life are often found in an individual's experiences rather than buried among the pages of a textbook. Indeed, the ideas that formed the foundation of Salk's greatest accomplishment–the first effective polio vaccine–were not found in any fancy college textbook, but came to light because he did not believe that some established scientific theories were the only way that problems could be solved. More specifically, as a young medical student in 1936 sitting in a lecture for a course entitled Bacteriology and Immunology, Salk recalls an experience that altered the course of his life (Sherrow 31):

I remember very vividly all the details about where I was sitting and what was happening, almost as if the light was turned on and everything became clear....We were told that one could immunize against diphtheria and tetanus.

In the next lecture, we were told it was not possible to immunize with a chemically treated or noninfectious (killed) virus vaccine, so that struck me as rather odd. How could both statements be true? And I remember the answer we were given was that the cells of the inoculated individual that were involved in a virus infection had to go through the experience of the infection itself. Why should that be, when the cells going through that experience were thus destroyed? How could that immunize cells that did not experience infection? Something's wrong here, I thought.

For me, what came together was the question: Is it true you need a live virus for a safe, effective vaccine? And if it's not true, then what can be done with viruses, as can be done with a toxin, to render them harmless while retaining their effectiveness for immunization?

This encounter stayed with Salk throughout his life and helped to determine the path along which he would conduct his life's work. As stated in the opening quote, this intuitive ability that he possessed did not come from spending hours learning from his textbooks, but simply came from the ordinary experience of attending a lecture for class. It was this run-of-the-mill opportunity that changed Dr. Jonas E. Salk's life forever.


Born on October 28, 1914, in a tenement apartment in the East Harlem section of New York City, Jonas Edward Salk was the first of three sons born to Dora and Daniel Salk. As recent immigrants to the United Stated from Russia, Salk's parents worked extremely hard to support their family. Daniel Salk manufactured and designed women's clothing and was often not at home during the hours when Jonas and his brothers were awake; therefore, his father did not play a major role or have a lasting impact on Jonas' life. His mother, on the other hand, was a forceful woman and "felt it her duty to make her presence felt in the world through her sons" (Carter 29). This desire caused Dora Salk to become a devoted homemaker and mother, despite the long hours she spent each day working in the garment district of New York City. She was so set on driving her children to greatness that she began reading to her sons and lecturing them on the pitfalls of self-indulgence even before they could hold their heads up on their own. This endless instruction throughout early childhood lead to an early breakthrough; Salk's first spoken words were "dirt, dirt," rather than the conventional and uninspired "no, no" or "Mama." Although tiring at times, the Salk children no doubt benefited from their parents' example and from the emphasis on family life and education that was seated in their strong Jewish background.

A shy boy, Salk found a safe haven in his books; he wore glasses for nearsightedness and was hardly spotted without reading material in his hand. It was not enough for Dora Salk that Jonas was bright and responsible, she felt that he should be subject to more exceptional stimuli than the other children in the neighborhood. She gave Jonas daily lessons in perfection and held him to ever-changing standards. "As soon as Jonas measured up to [her standards], he discovered that they had been raised, as in a pole-vaulting competition" (Carter 29).

Jonas was highly intellectual as a young boy in elementary school and his teachers were aware that they were dealing with someone who would one day soar to great heights. Endlessly inquisitive, Salk would subject his instructors to a barrage of questions, arrive at a logical conclusion, and share it with his peers. One adult stated, "Even as a kid, when Jonas said anything, you could put it in the bank" (Sherrow 7).

While in school, Salk did not have much interest in the sciences, though oddly enough, he would later dedicate himself to this discipline. He completed only one science course in high school, physics, and spent the majority of his time focusing on the areas of school that he truly enjoyed, poetry, philosophy, and history.

Always pushing her sons, Dora persuaded her husband and Jonas that he was not being sufficiently challenged by the neighborhood school and, at age 12, Jonas qualified to enter Townsend Harris Hall, a gifted high school for male students in New York City. This high school was run by City College of New York and, although free of charge, students were expected to graduate in three years, rather than the traditional four. Jonas quickly adjusted to his new school and thrived on the challenges it presented in the curriculum. As Salk went through school, "he realized that he wanted to do something significant with his life and something at which he could work independently" (Sherrow 8). Salk graduated near the top of his class in the spring of 1929 and is remembered by his classmates as a "nice, but unremarkable boy" (Carter 30).

Higher Education

Salk began college at City College in New York City in 1929 when he was just fifteen. He entered college with plans to become a lawyer because law was a field in which injustice was obstructed. Also, it was an occupation of which his mother approved. However, shortly after entering college, Salk's curiosity got the better of him and he enrolled in a laboratory chemistry course. It was during this particular class that Jonas became interested in science and decided that he was eager to learn more about the domain of chemistry. Salk soon changed his major from law to chemistry because he felt that he had "found a field that would combine his logical mind and sense of order with creative thinking" (Sherrow 10). It was at this time, while Salk was still in college, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president. Salk was inspired as he learned how the great leader had survived a bout with paralytic poliomyelitis; Roosevelt's story sparked Jonas' interest and lead Salk to think about how he as an individual could help to better the world. After much thought, Salk decided to attend medical school and pursue a career in the field of medical research; more specifically, to study diseases (such as polio) and find ways to treat and cure them.

Jonas Salk entered medical school at New York University in 1934 and he held a job as a laboratory technician in order to gain some research experience as he completed his medical coursework. While at NYU, Salk learned of and reflected on the work of early scientists in the filed of viruses, as this seemed to be a field in which his interest was growing. To name a few, he studied Dr. Edward Jenner, an English scientist who developed a way to prevent smallpox (the first vaccination), Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutchman who first looked at microorganisms under a microscope, Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian who showed that sealing food tightly in a container prevented microorganisms from growing, Louis Pasteur, a chemist who is known as the founder of microbiology and the father of the germ theory of medicine, and Robert Koch, a German scientist who was the first to show that a specific microorganism caused a specific disease.

In 1938, Jonas was presented with an opportunity that later became another defining event in his life; he approached a microbiologist by the name of Dr. Thomas Francis who was visiting NYU to ask if he could help Dr. Francis in his lab. Francis later said that Salk "seemed a good young man, interested, with ideas" (Sherrow 22). In years to come, Francis would involve Salk in a major project to inactivate the influenza virus using ultraviolet light. Through his work with Dr. Francis, Salk learned that killed viruses stimulated the development of antibody levels as much as the live virus itself. Their work lead to the development of an influenza vaccine and represented Jonas Salk's first major contribution to the world of medical research.

In June 1939, Salk received his medical degree and was married the next day to Donna Lindsay, a psychologist who was studying at the New York School for Social Work. Salk said he was "now ready to move forward in his career, with a spouse who shared his intellectual interests and goals of making the world a better place" (Sherrow 23).

The Road to Discovery

Salk and his new wife moved in 1940 as Salk secured a medical intern position at the renowned Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Jonas found time to continue his work in the laboratory, despite the long hours he was spending seeing patients and attending lectures. During this time, Salk stayed in contact with Dr. Francis, who had gone to the University of Michigan to head a viral research laboratory, and Jonas often discussed his own laboratory work with his mentor. Salk began to publish journal articles and was startled when other members of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine criticized his work. Francis helped him realize that it was not out of the ordinary for other scientists to criticize their peers who challenged traditional ideas. Overcoming the need for acceptance and validation marked a great step along Jonas' path to his discovery.

As Salk continued his work in the laboratory at Mount Sinai, his interest in virology grew and he decided that to best understand a disease, a physician must study the ways in which the disease and the human body interact. Many of his colleagues criticized this concept as well when he first discussed it with them.

In 1941, Dr. Francis invited Salk to come and work with him in Michigan; their work was to center around the discovery of an influenza vaccine. Salk did a lot of work at this time in an attempt to discover whether a vaccine containing live viruses was the most efficient way to provide a patient with immunity or whether a vaccine containing only dead viruses would work just as well. These experiments mark one of Salk's major contributions to the medical field. In 1944, the flu vaccine became available, thanks to the work of Dr. Francis and Dr. Salk.

In the next five years, Salk became recognized in his field and began to get invitations to address scientific conventions. This was the validation and acceptance for which Jonas had been striving since his childhood. Finally feeling truly comfortable in the field of medical research, he decided that he wanted to set up his own laboratories. Salk took a new position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947; in the same year, he was invited to take part in a national effort to identify all of the types of viruses that cause poliomyelitis. The University of Pittsburgh was very excited about this opportunity for their new faculty member and allowed Jonas to develop some of the university facilities into his laboratories. Salk was ecstatic. As Salk and his team worked to type the polio viruses, he remained in close contact with others in his field, such as Dr. Thomas Francis, Dr. Albert Sabin, and Dr. John Enders. During this time, Salk also began thinking about developing a vaccine for the crippling disease known as polio that hit the citizens of the United States in yearly cycles.

In 1950, Salk was awarded research money from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to begin work on a polio vaccine. Other scientists received similar grants, including Sabin and Enders; thus, the race for the cure was on. Jonas planned from the beginning to develop a vaccine containing killed viruses only, although the controversy between live-virus and killed-virus vaccines still remained. Scientists did not know whether a killed-virus vaccine would work against polio and many frowned on Salk's decision.

Salk and his research team first hit the news when they made progress in growing polioviruses more quickly than any other laboratory; they also showed that killed-virus vaccines prevented poliomyelitis in test monkeys. Jonas presented his work at the Second International Poliomyelitis Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, again receiving validation from his peers. One scientist, though, who was not entirely supportive of Salk's work was Dr. Albert Sabin; he told Salk to be cautious, "that the human body might react quite differently when confronted with the same substances the....team was testing in experimental animals in the lab" (Sherrow 58). Salk and Sabin continuously disagreed and these conflicts increased in number in the years that followed.

In 1952, Salk believed that he had, in fact, developed a successful polio vaccine using dead viruses and the only way to judge its success was to begin human tests. The first experiments were done on children who lived in the D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania; these children had already had polio and knowingly underwent the testing. No children became ill and the significant rise in their antibody levels was exactly what Salk had expected and wanted. The next step was to test the vaccine on individuals who had never before had poliomyelitis. For these tests, he vaccinated himself, his wife, and his three sons. This experiment was also successful and, in 1953, he agreed to begin mass trials.

National testing began in 1954 with participants who have come to be known as the Polio Pioneers, half a million children from age six to nine who received the polio vaccine. Another half million children made up the control group. Dr. Francis got the job of analyzing all test results, as he was viewed as an unbiased party.

The long-awaited results of the study came in the spring of 1955. Although not foolproof, the Salk vaccine had proven 60%-90% successful in preventing poliomyelitis. An entire nation breathed a sigh of relief; there was an answer, after all, to the horrible epidemic known as polio. A newspaper headline on April 12 read: "The Salk Vaccine is Safe, Effective, and Potent. Polio is Conquered" (Sherrow 80).

The Spotlight

Salk instantly became a national hero. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with the United States Medal of Merit, which Jonas accepted "on behalf of all the people, in laboratories, in the field, and those behind the lines" (Sherrow 83). Dr. Salk was the subject of tremendous media coverage, constantly bombarded with invitations for radio spots, newspaper appearances, and, of course, commitments within the medical community. Salk was also awarded both the Lasker and Criss Awards, prominent awards in the medical arena, among others; several schools, streets, and buildings were named after him. The vaccine was licensed and labeled safe and, throughout the process, Salk never sought material gain for his work; for this, many Americans admired him.

By 1962, the obvious benefit of the Salk polio vaccine was evident, as seen in the following statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, and Centers for Disease Control:




Number of polio cases reported in the U.S.










38, 478

28, 985

15, 140

5, 485

5, 787

8, 425

3, 190

1, 312



Although enthusiastic about his successful discovery, one form of public recognition that Salk probably hoped to receive was the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He was nominated for the award, but was not selected by the committee. Many scientists claim that Salk did not deserve the Nobel Prize because "his work on the killed-virus vaccine used various techniques from existing science. It was not new and original work....and the Nobel Prize is reserved for scientific breakthroughs" (Sherrow 88). This was undoubtedly one of the few disappointments of Dr. Jonas E. Salk's life.

The Competition

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis declared in 1958 that polio was no longer a major American health threat and, thus, stated that they would not fund any subsequent polio research. This was more validation for Jonas that the Salk vaccine had indeed achieved its goal. A survey of Americans in that same year found that Dr. Salk was one of the two best-known American scientists; the other was Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had directed the secret research project to build the atomic bomb during World War II. With this additional recognition, Salk seemed to be flying high; he had done what he had originally set out to do–develop a vaccine–and now he was being showered with the attention that he had always wanted.

In the late 1950s, though, Salk's longtime adversary, Dr. Albert Sabin, developed a live-virus vaccine for poliomyelitis. The vaccine was approved by the American Medical Association even before it was tested, a practice that was unprecedented; many believed that the AMA looked more favorably on Sabin's vaccine because it used the traditional live-virus technique as opposed to the new method that Salk had introduced. Also, the Sabin vaccine was easier to take; it replaced the numerous injections that the Salk method required with simple swallowings of sugar lumps containing the vaccine. The Sabin vaccine was tested on millions of citizens of the Soviet Union and the United States Public Health Service approved full licensing early in 1962.

By 1963, the Sabin oral vaccine was preferred to Salk's injected vaccine in the United States. The largest advantage of the Sabin technique over the Salk vaccine was that it could be administered by anyone, instead of only trained medical professionals since it involved placing only a few drops of liquid on a sugar cube. Also, it meant fewer shots for innocent children. "Most of the polio inoculations administered today are from the Sabin rather that the Salk vaccine" (Pamplin, Jr. and Eisler 126).

A Lasting Contribution and His Continuing Work

Salk spent the years from 1955-1960 in the public eye, promoting his vaccine and the principle of the killed-virus vaccine, while putting his laboratory research on hold. After these years of public appearances, though, he was ready to resume his lab work and he was thrilled when one of his supporters from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis offered to help him build his own biological institute. Salk was excited about "the possibility of bringing together leading workers in diverse fields and freeing them to collaborate with each other without departmental or administrative barriers" (Sherrow 95). After a great deal of searching for the perfect place that would have the "ability to evoke and inspire creativity" (Sherrow 97), Salk found the ideal location in La Jolla, California, located next to San Diego. This spot was excellent not only because of the breathtaking view, but also because the mayor of San Diego had been crippled by polio. The mayor asked the city to give Salk a piece of land along the coast and, despite some initial misgivings among the city's population, the plan for the Salk Institute was approved.

Dr. Salk selected a world-famous American architect, Louis I. Kahn, to design the institute and worked closely with him to make the buildings function well for scientific research. Then, he carefully selected the first group of scientists that he would invite to work for him; his selections included: mathematician-philosopher Jacob Bronowski, physicist Francis H. C. Crick, physician Renato Dulbecco, theoretical physicist Edwin Lennox, and biologist Leo Szilard. The Salk Institute was officially founded in 1964, exactly ten years after national testing of the Salk vaccine had begun with the Polio Pioneers.

In addition to his continued administrative duties at the Salk Institute, Jonas spent his time teaching and writing. Always anxious to return to his primary love of medical research, though, Dr. Jonas E. Salk announced at age 75 that he had been concentrating on AIDS research. He had started work on a killed-virus vaccine for AIDS in early 1986, again battling against those in the medical field who continued to doubt the effectiveness of a technique employing dead viruses. Although his work has not yet lead to an AIDS vaccine, Salk's research has produced an immunogen that can be administered to those that are HIV-positive in order to slow or prevent the onset of disease. This quasi-vaccine was the first AIDS-inhibiting product to be subjected to mass testing in the United States–another Salk breakthrough.

Salk in Relation to Gardner's Model

Dr. Jonas Salk fits into Howard Gardner’s model of creativity if the guidelines of the mold are loosely applied. In other words, there are numerous instances in which Salk perfectly fits into Gardner’s parameters, while there are many other situations in which Salk defies the Gardnerian model and stands in a category all his own.

To begin with the similarities to the model, Salk was the oldest child in his family, a trend that can be traced through subjects that Gardner has studied in the past, such as Sigmund Freud. Jonas’ place in his family’s birth order helps to explain the later drive and determination that he demonstrated in his chosen domain. Another early factor in Salk’s life was the family environment, a determinant Gardner often cites as aiding in the future career choices of gifted creators. As with the other innovators in Creating Minds, the household in which Jonas grew up was comfortable and never failed to provide him with everything he needed to succeed. Gardner also alludes to the fact that many great creators have parents who are not highly educated but, nonetheless, value education and wish for their children the opportunity for learning that they did not have. This was indeed the case in the Salk household; his parents, both garment workers with only eighth-grade educations, pushed Jonas to strive for excellence and helped him to succeed at a gifted high school.

As Jonas matured, he discovered his area of interest at the age of fifteen; he was just a youngster as many of Gardner’s other subjects, like Albert Einstein. Salk began to concentrate on his medical studies and worked closely with a mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis, again following Gardnerian guidelines; this relationship bore likeness to the alliance between Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev. Jonas maintained this relationship with Francis for many years, while also keeping in close contact with others in his domain, namely Dr. Albert Sabin and Dr. John Enders. Salk had enormous support at home from his wife while he performed the research that lead to his greatest medical contribution–the polio vaccine–and this support at the time of a breakthrough was also predicted by Howard Gardner’s model. Further, Gardner believes that for an individual to truly be creative, the domain in which one concentrates must recognize the work. Salk received such validation after his great discovery by being awarded several honors, namely the Lasker Award and the Criss Award.

Howard Gardner laid out more general guidelines upon which to measure creativity and Jonas Salk follows these as well. First, he made a Faustian bargain. Although he cared deeply about his wife and sons, Jonas knew that he could not spend large amounts of time with them while also researching a cure for polio. Therefore, he made a sacrifice and decided that he would spend quality time with them, but that he would make an even bigger committment to his chosen work. The concept of a Faustian bargain is a common characteristic that is seen time and again in Creating Minds; this idea is most evident in the case of Pablo Picasso who completely devoted himself to painting when one of his sisters died of a critical illness. Also, Gardner often speaks of a 10-year cycle surrounding a creator’s breakthroughs. This cycle can easily be seen in the work of T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, as well as Jonas Salk. Jonas worked for Dr. Francis’ research team and, in 1944, because of their work, the influenza vaccine became nationally available. Just a decade later, of course, Salk made his greatest contribution to medicine when, in 1954, national testing of the poliomyelitis vaccine began with the Polio Pioneers. Finally, ten years later, in 1964, Salk made another breakthrough; the Salk Institute was officially founded.

Despite all of the similarities, Jonas Salk does not fit flawlessly into Howard Gardner’s model of creativity. First, unlike many in Gardner’s book, Creating Minds, Jonas was not a child prodigy. He was strong in academics, namely in his logical-mathematical skills, but Jonas worked diligently in school and was not that extraordinary a student. Also, as Salk grew up and began his family, he did not alienate them as some subjects like Einstein did; rather, he spent limited amounts of quality time with them. Though he dedicated many of his hours to research, his loved ones always knew that he cared for them tremendously. Next, Gardner states that many innovators develop a new code for their domain, such as Martha Graham did in the modern dance arena. Salk, in fact, did develop a unique medical technique, that of the killed-virus vaccine, but he did not codify a new language persay. This was the argument that other scientists used when they did not select Salk to be the recipient of the Nobel Prize. Lastly, unlike most of Gardner’s subjects, Jonas Salk was not conducting his work in a major city. Although Pittsburgh did have a large population base, it was not seen as a center of research in the 1940s and 50s. If Salk had lived in New York City at the time of his discovery, place would have made a more significant contribution to his work. Salk was content, though, to keep in contact with his collegues by mail and telephone and this prevented him from having to move his family–something that was extremely important to him.


On June 23, 1995, one of the greatest scientific minds of the modern era died of congestive heart failure at home in La Jolla, California. At the age of 80, the death of

Dr. Jonas Salk, a pioneering researcher, shook the medical community. His colleagues say that his death represents a great loss to the medical field; Donald Francis, a clinical scientist and long-time admirer of Salk stated, "Jonas was–in his own words–a change ahead of his time....It’s a shame that all the controversy buried the real accomplishments. The sad thing is that he never got the Nobel Prize for his work–he developed a technology rather than making a fundamental discovery" (Sankaran 19). Although the vaccine was never patented and Salk personally gained no monetary benefits from his discovery, this was never his intent. Jonas simply had a special vision of doing research and understanding humans as a whole. Named as "one of the 12 heroes of our time" (Sherrow 110), this is exactly how many Americans viewed him. Salk had a part in three medical breakthroughs–participating in research that lead to vaccines for influenza, poliomyelitis, and AIDS. He is a researcher in a class occupied by few others and his legacy will live on for years to come. "Jonas [was] in touch with the world....He [was] aware of the world and concerned about it. He [saw] beyond the microscope at the larger world and found ways to make it better. He has inspired other to do the same" (Sherrow 108).


Carter, Richard. Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk. New York: Trident Press, 1965.

Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Pamplin, Jr., Dr. Robert B. and Eisler, Gary K. American Heroes: Their Lives, Their Values,

Their Beliefs. New York: Mastermedia Limited, 1995.

Rowland, John. The Polio Man. New York: Roy Publishers, 1960.

Sankaran, Neeraja. The Scientist. Vol. 9(15), pg. 19, July 24, 1995.

Sherrow, Victoria. Makers of Modern Science: Jonas Salk. New York: Facts on File, 1993.


Electronic references

Biographical information--http://www.bena.com/lucidcafe/library/95oct/jesalk.html

Biographical information-- http://www.wic.org/bio/jsalk.htm

The Importance of Dr. Salk's work--www.azstarnet.com/~rspear/taids.html

An interview with Jonas Salk--http://www.teenaids-peercorps.com/2eJonas Salk.html

Salk's Time out of the Laboratory--http://www.aafpages.org/Salk.htm

The Philosophical Salk--http://www.bemorecreative.com/one/456.htm

Media Coverage of the Release of the Polio Vaccine--http://www.detnews.com/history/polio/polio1.htm







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