Jonas Salk Biography

Scientist, Doctor(1914–1995)
Jonas Salk was an American physician and medical researcher who developed the first safe and effective vaccine for polio.


Jonas Salk was born October 28, 1914, in New York City. In 1942 at the University of Michigan School of Public Health he became part of a group that was working to develop a vaccine against the flu. In 1947 he became head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. At Pittsburgh he began research on polio. On April 12, 1955, the vaccine was released for use in the United States. He established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1963. Salk died in 1995.

Early Life

Born in New York City on October 28, 1914, Jonas Salk was one of the leading scientists of the twentieth century and the creator of the first polio vaccine. He grew up poor in New York City, where his father worked in the garment district. Education was very important to his parents, and they encouraged him to apply himself to his studies.

After graduating from high school, Salk attended the City College of New York, where he earned a bachelor's degree in science. He went on to earn his M.D. from New York University in 1939. Salk interned at Mount Sinai Hospital for two years and then earned a fellowship to University of Michigan, where he studied flu viruses with Dr. Thomas Francis Jr.

Polio Vaccine

In 1947, Salk took a position at University of Pittsburgh, where he began conducting research on polio, also known as infantile paralysis. By 1951, Salk had determined that there were three distinct types of polio viruses and was able to develop a "killed virus" vaccine for the disease. The vaccine used polio viruses that had been grown in a laboratory and then destroyed.

Preliminary testing of the polio vaccine began in 1952 - the shot given mostly to children. National testing expanded over the next two years, making it one of the largest clinical trials in medical history. Roughly 1.8 million children were given the vaccine during the test phase. In 1953, Salk administered the experimental vaccine to himself, his wife and sons. Salk's efforts were supported and promoted by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its president Basil O'Connor. When the vaccine was approved for general use in 1955, Salk became a national hero. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave him a special citation at a ceremony held in the Rose Garden at the White House.

In its first few years, the vaccine had a remarkable impact on the number of new cases of polio reported. There were more than 57,000 cases in the United States in 1952, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. A decade later, that number fell to less than a thousand. The Salk vaccine was replaced with a live virus vaccine developed by Albert Sabin around this time because it was less expensive and easier to use.

Later Years

Salk launched his own research organization known as the Salk Center for Biological Studies in 1963. There he and other scientists focused their efforts on such diseases as multiple sclerosis and cancer. Salk served as the center's director until 1975, and he then became its founding director. Continuing to research, Salk studied AIDS and HIV later in his career.

In addition to his research, Salk also wrote several books on philosophical topics. His works include Man Unfolding (1972) and The Survival of the Wisest (1973), which he co-wrote with son Jonathan.

Jonas Salk died of heart failure on June 23, 1995, at his home in La Jolla, California. With his groundbreaking vaccine, Salk had earned his place in medical history. He will always be remembered as the man who stopped polio.

Personal Life

Salk was married to social worker Donna Lindsay from 1939 to 1968. The couple had three sons together: Peter, Darrell and Jonathan. In 1970, he married artist Francoise Gilot, who had previously been romantically involved with Pablo Picasso.

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