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Awesome Men Throughout History: Jonas Salk

Random fact: whenever I’m having a bad day, I take a moment to remind myself that at least I don’t have polio. And I have this week’s Awesome Man, Jonas Salk, to thank for that. More specifically, I have his polio vaccine to thank.

Salk was born in New York City to Jewish immigrants who had very little formal education. Naturally, they pushed their children to do better, so Jonas was sent to Townsend Harris High School, which was meant for for gifted students who didn’t come from enough old money to attend a private school. Salk was a voracious reader who crammed a four-year curriculum into three years and went on to the City College of New York for his Bachelor’s, and NYU’s School of Medicine after that.

Salk!

It was at NYU that he found his calling. Salk’s original plans were to become a doctor, but he found laboratory research much more rewarding, which I’m guessing his fellow students thought was a little weird (I keep reading that he “stood out” among his peers for choosing research over medicine, which is something of a red flag phrase for me). But weird or not, Salk was hooked, studying biochemistry and bacteriology out of a desire to help his fellow man in a broader way than he would by treating single patients out of a doctor’s office. From what I know about medical students, I think a lot of them would still think that was weird.

Anyway, Salk’s humanitarian ideals and newfound direction in life were well timed, because polio was raging all over the country and the medical community wasn’t too sure how to stop it beyond quarantining patients. You have to understand that polio was the worst of all imaginable outcomes; it was like AIDS and SARS and bird flu and Justin Bieber all rolled into one for post-war America. As the number of cases grew – as one example, polio struck close to 60,000 people in 1952, killing over 3,000 and paralyzing over 21,000 – the public response grew more desperate and, in some cases, panicked. And given the disease’s prevalence among children, it was imperative that someone found a cure before things got really crazy.

Because of this, there was already a decent amount of support, financial and otherwise, behind defeating polio by the time Salk took a crack at it, and he was funded by a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, among other benefactors. His work was controversial in the scientific community because he was fairly new to polio research at that time, and he was developing an inactive (aka killed-virus) vaccine that ran contrary to the live-virus work many of his contemporaries were doing. Of course, according to American historian William O’Neill, “everything scientists believed about polio at first was wrong,” so call it a wash.

That said, Salk was seen as an avaricious publicity hound by the scientific community for his willingness to seek outside funding for his research, and for the media attention he received when his vaccine was ready for national field trials in 1954. One can only imagine how they reacted when it was declared safe for general use a year later (it’s rumored that his exclusion from the National Academy of Sciences was due to their disapproval of his fame).

For his part, Salk was uncomfortable with all the media attention his success brought, and deeply offended by his peers’ accusations. He’d been working sixteen hour days for years trying to cure polio, and had held himself personally responsible for curing it until it became an obsession, even using his family as early test subjects. If his handling of fame was clumsy at times, it’s hard to blame him. He didn’t expect to be turned into a folk hero, and the same scientific community that called him a charlatan also didn’t produce anything better or faster than he did.

Like it or not, Salk’s vaccine was the first step in almost completely eradicating polio from the United States (well, minus the Cutter incident), and I think history has proven what a boon to humanity he was. Think about him the next time you go running, or spend time not locked into an iron lung, or when some idiot tries to convince you that vaccinations cause autism.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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