Salk, Jonas Edward, 1914-1995

Dates:
Birth 1914-10-28
Death 1995-06-23
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Biochemical researcher and physician.

Salk was an alumnus of City College, Class of 1934.

From the description of Memorabilia, [ca. 1934-1965] (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155503820

Noted physician, virologist, and humanitarian, best known for development of the first poliomyelitis vaccine. Founder of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

Served on the faculty of the Univ. of Michigan (1942-1963) and the Univ. of Pittsburgh (1947-1963) and as director of the Salk Institute (1963-1975). Married French artist Françoise Gilot in 1970.

From the description of Papers, 1926-1991. (University of California, San Diego). WorldCat record id: 18664855

Biography

Jonas Salk is best known for his discovery of the world's first successful vaccine for the prevention of poliomyelitis. In addition to this accomplishment, Dr. Salk has made significant contributions to the study, prevention, and treatment of influenza, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other diseases. He is also known for the founding and direction of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, his work for a wide variety of humanitarian endeavors, and most recently for his involvement in AIDS research.

Jonas Edward Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914. The eldest son of Daniel and Dora Salk, he grew up in East Harlem and the Crotona section of the Bronx. At 12 he began high school at Townsend Harris Hall, the preparatory school for the City College of New York. At 15 he entered the College itself. Taking an early interest in scientific research, he graduated from City College in 1934 with a Bachelor of Science degree.

In medical school at New York University, Salk distinguished himself from the beginning. At the end of his freshman year he was offered a fellowship to study biochemistry. In 1936 he returned to classes and completed his medical degree in 1939. During his last year in medical school he made the acquaintance of Dr. Thomas Francis, at that time chairman of the Department of Bacteriology. Francis, who had conducted important research on influenza and other diseases, became Salk's close friend and mentor.

After medical school Dr. Salk married Donna Lindsay, a graduate student at the New York School of Social Work and later a practicing social worker at the Jewish Child Care Association of New York. Before his internship, Dr. Salk spent a year of study with Thomas Francis and George Lavin, focusing primarily on research on influenza. In March of 1940 Salk began his internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and he completed the program in 1942.

After his internship, Salk had a strong desire to study the pathology of virus diseases. In 1942 he obtained a grant-funded position at the University of Michigan's new School of Public Health. The head of the School was Dr. Thomas Francis, who had moved there in 1941. The funds for Salk's research came largely from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, although the research itself concerned the development of a vaccine for the prevention of influenza.

In 1943, while still at Michigan, Salk began work with the United States Army Influenza Commission. One of the goals of the Commission was to prevent an outbreak of the disease among the armed forces -- an outbreak which had reached epidemic proportions at the end of World War I. Salk's work with the Army included the testing of noninfectious or "killed virus" vaccines against influenza. Many vaccine field trials were carried out at Army bases such as Fort Dix and Fort Custer. At the end of World War II, the Federal Government sent Dr. Salk to Germany, where he helped organize diagnostic laboratories for the prevention of influenza among the occupation troops.

Dr. Salk held three positions at the University of Michigan. From 1943 to 1944 he was a Research Fellow in Epidemiology. In 1944 he became a Research Associate, and in 1946 he received a promotion to an assistant professorship.

Seeking a more secure academic position, Dr. Salk left Michigan in the fall of 1947 to become Associate Research Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine. The dean of the School, Dr. William S. McEllroy, took an active interest in promoting research in virology. With the help of McEllroy and other prominent members of the community, Dr. Salk began a long and successful campaign to garner funds for the expansion of the Medical School's research program. Although Salk began his work in inadequate quarters in the basement of Pittsburgh's Municipal Hospital, he eventually transformed the Hospital facilities into a modern and well-equipped laboratory. Salk's early work at Pittsburgh was a continuation of his Michigan influenza research. Beginning in 1948, however, he focused more and more of his attention on studying the poliomyelitis virus.

Most support for Dr. Salk's polio work came from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- later known as the March of Dimes. The founder of the organization was President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio. The Foundation had its roots in Roosevelt's sponsorship of a polio treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia in the early 1930's. In the mid-30s a series of "Birthday Balls" for the President helped raise more funds for polio research. Finally, in 1937, Roosevelt established the National Foundation. The president of the Foundation was Basil O'Connor, Roosevelt's former law partner and a self-made millionaire. Along with Dr. Thomas Rivers, who advised the Foundation on research grants, Dr. Don W. Gudakunst, the Medical Director, and Dr. Harry Weaver, its director of research, O'Connor made the organization the premier funding source for American polio research.

In September 1951, Basil O'Connor met Jonas Salk. The two were returning from the Second International Poliomyelits Conference in Copenhagen aboard the Queen Mary. Salk made a most favorable impression on O'Connor, and they eventually became close friends. The collaboration of Salk and O'Connor helped facilitate many important projects, including polio research and the establishment of the Salk Institute.

Poliomyelitis (commonly called polio) is a viral disease that results in a wide range of symptoms, including extensive paralysis of the muscles. The polio virus can enter the body through the throat and intestinal tract. Eventually the virus migrates to the central nervous system where it does the most damage. In many cases, a mild form of the disease in infancy can result in life-long immunity. Once known as "Infantile Paralysis," the disease was first accurately described in 1840. Epidemics of the disease were noted as early as 1887 in Sweden. In the United States, polio epidemics became widespread after 1900. A particularly large number of cases appeared in the U.S. between 1942 and 1953, and 33,344 cases were reported in 1950 alone. Although only one of many infectious and fatal diseases, polio gained widespread attention because many of its victims were children. Much of the success of the National Foundation's fundraising efforts resulted from the fears of parents and sympathy for children crippled by polio.

Many polio researchers made substantial progress from the late 1930s to the 1950s. Among those were W. Lloyd Aycock, James Trask, John R. Paul, David Bodian, Isabel Morgan, Howard Howe, Joseph Melnick, Dorothy Horstmann, Harold Cox, Hilary Kaprowski, and Albert Sabin. In 1931, Macfarlane Burnet discovered the existence of more than one strain of the polio virus. Robert G. Green made the important discovery that the polio virus could grow in non-nervous tissue. In 1951 and 1952 William Hammon conducted a field trial of gamma-globulin, a blood protein in which antibodies are formed. The tests successfully proved that the virus could travel through the bloodstream to the nervous system. A substantial breakthrough came in the late 1940s, when John F. Enders, Thomas H. Weller, and Frederick Robbins successfully grew poliovirus in vitro at Harvard University. This breakthrough paved the way for the use of laboratory-generated viruses for experimentation, and it opened up the possibility that noninfectious vaccine could be developed from an inactivated virus.

Dr. Salk began his polio research by carrying out part of the systematic classification of the various strains of the virus. To facilitate this work, Salk expanded and modernized the Virus Research Laboratory in the old Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital. His staff included Major Byron L. Bennett, the chief laboratory technician; Dr. Julius S. Younger, the chief Research Associate; Dr. James L. Lewis; and Dr. Elsie N. Ward. Later additions to the staff were Francis Yurochko, Dr. Mary L. Bailey, Dr. Percival L. Bazeley, and Dr. Donald Wegemer. Handling Dr. Salk's administrative affairs was Lorraine Friedman, who began work with him in 1949. Ms. Friedman, a Pittsburgh native, has continued her work with Dr. Salk to the present (1988).

By 1950 Dr. Salk had completed the essential work in his virus-typing experiments. He then shifted his focus to research on a vaccine for the prevention of polio. The National Foundation awarded a grant for this research in 1951. The central element in Salk's efforts was the development of a non-infectious or "killed virus" vaccine. Salk used tissue-culture methods to produce the polio virus, and employed a formaldehyde solution called Formalin to inactivate the virus. To enhance potency, Salk experimented with adjuvants derived from mineral oil.

In the early summer of 1952, Dr. Salk and his associates developed what they considered to be an effective polio vaccine. In June of that year they tested their vaccine on a group of children at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, located near Pittsburgh at Leetsdale. The tests proved successful, and more were conducted at the Watson Home and the Polk State School. By the end of 1952 Dr. Salk felt that his vaccine could be used to combat polio on a large scale, and he announced his discovery at a meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in January 1953. The official report of his discovery appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association of March 28, 1953.

To test his vaccine on a large scale, Dr. Salk and others proposed a nationwide field trial. During late 1953 and early 1954, Dr. Salk and the National Foundation were involved in the complex work of designing the field trials, obtaining the official approval needed to conduct the experiment, and seeing that vaccine of acceptable quality was manufactured. Deeply involved in this process was the National Foundation's Vaccine Advisory Committee, under the leadership of Thomas Rivers. The pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the trial vaccine were Parke Davis of Detroit and Eli Lilly of Indianapolis. On April 25, 1954, the Vaccine Advisory Committee and the National Institutes of Health recommended that the field trial be carried out, and the U.S. Public Health Service gave its official approval.

Under the overall observation of the University of Michigan and Dr. Thomas Francis, a massive field trial of the Salk vaccine began on April 26, 1954. Children in grades one through five were inoculated. 441,131 children received the Salk vaccine, and 201,229 were injected with a placebo. In June the tests ended, and Dr. Francis and his associates began to evaluate the results. Meanwhile, in September 1954, Dr. Salk travelled to Rome with Basil O'Connor for the Third International Poliomyelitis Conference. There Salk and his supporters came under attack from proponents of live-virus polio vaccines, most notably Albert Sabin. This conflict, which had begun earlier in the decade, would intensify throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and it continues to the present.

By April of 1955, Dr. Francis and his associates had reached the conclusion that the Salk vaccine field trials were, with some exceptions, generally successful. Francis presented his report in Ann Arbor on April 12, 1955. After an evaluation of the report by a group of virologists, a license for sale of the Salk vaccine was signed by Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

The announcement of the success of the field trials led to great demand for the Salk vaccine. By the end of April 1955, around 5 million children had been inoculated with commercially produced Salk vaccine. Several commercial firms (besides Parke Davis and Lilly) manufactured the vaccine on a large scale -- a process which had begun even before the release of the Francis Report.

Some of the firms had difficulty in safely inactivating the polio virus. At the end of April 1955, a large batch of vaccine manufactured by Cutter Laboratories actually caused polio in 250 cases. The Cutter vaccine was taken off the market, although the general vaccination program continued. An investigation of the incident revealed problems in inactivation of the Mahoney strain of the virus. On the recommendation of John Enders and other virologists, U.S. Surgeon-General Leonard Scheele halted the vaccination program on May 7, 1955. After an in-depth investigation, Dr. Salk and a technical committee of virologists developed more stringent specifications for the manufacture of the vaccine. On May 27, 1955, the Surgeon-General announced that the vaccination program could be resumed.

Although the vaccination program continued, public enthusiasm for the program waned in the late 1950s, despite the promotional efforts of the National Foundation. Although the use of the vaccine was not as widespread as Dr. Salk had hoped, and although many people did not receive the full course of three injections, the vaccine accounted for a dramatic decline in the incidence of polio in the United States and elsewhere.

Dr. Salk's vaccine earned him immediate recognition throughout the world. His office received thousands of "thank you" letters from school children from many countries. In some Latin American towns, mothers and children signed long and elaborately designed scrolls, which were sent to Dr. Salk. State legislatures and organizations throughout the country passed resolutions honoring Dr. Salk. He received numerous special awards and honors, including honorary degrees. Included in some of the thousands of pieces of fan mail were cash donations to promote future research.

Although Salk's vaccine was generally successful in combatting polio, other researchers searched for alternatives. Among these researchers were Herold Cox, Hilary Koprowski, and Albert Sabin. Sabin, who felt that a killed-virus vaccine like Salk's could not effectively prevent polio, developed his own live-virus vaccine. Adapting techniques used by Renato Dulbecco, Sabin made progress in the mid-1950s, and by 1956 he was ready to test his vaccine on a large scale. A massive field trial of the Sabin vaccine took place in the Soviet Union between 1957 and 1959, and the results were reported as successful. Tests of vaccines produced by Koprowski and Cox took place in Africa and Latin America during the same years.

Unlike the Salk vaccine, the Sabin vaccine was suspended in syrup or sugar cubes and taken orally. Sabin claimed that his vaccine was more potent and longer lasting in its protection than Salk's. In addition, since Sabin's vaccine was taken orally, he claimed that it was easier to administer than the Salk vaccine, which required multiple hypodermic injections to be effective. The most significant drawback of the Sabin vaccine was its potential for infection from the live virus.

By 1962 the Sabin vaccine had been licensed by the Federal Government and endorsed by the American Medical Association. By 1963 70,000,000 people in the United States had taken the vaccine. By the end of the 1960s the Sabin vaccine had become the primary drug for the prevention of polio in the U.S. However, although polio became virtually non-existent in the United States by 1970, many new cases of the disease were caused by the live virus in the Sabin vaccine itself. Because of this potential harm, many countries, including Sweden, favored the use of the vaccine developed by Salk.

Dr. Salk continued his virus research in the late 1950s. In addition to serving as the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Virus Research Laboratory, Salk held the posts of Commonwealth Professor of Preventive Medicine (1955-1957), and Commonwealth Professor of Experimental Medicine (1957-1963).

Beginning around 1957, Dr. Salk began planning for the establishment of an institute for biological research. He originally considered locating an institute for experimental medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, but he soon realized that an independent entity would better serve the cause of modern scientific research. He hoped to create a hospitable environment for scientists concerned with the implications of their work and interested in the interrelationships between various disciplines.

By 1960 Salk had chosen San Diego as the site for what would become the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. A substantial amount of start-up funds came from the National Foundation-March of Dimes. The citizens of San Diego, through a referendum, made a gift of pueblo lots in the La Jolla area, close to the new University of California, San Diego. The Institute began operation in temporary quarters in 1963, and permanent buildings, designed by architect Louis Kahn, were completed in 1967. The buildings soon gained international fame for their dramatic and innovative design.

The Salk Institute succeeded in assembling an outstanding and highly innovative staff, including many Nobel laureates. The original fellows of the Institute included: mathematician Jacob Bronowski; biophysicist and immunochemist Melvin Cohn; Francis Crick, a physicist, chemist, and molecular biologist; Renato Dulbecco, a physician, bacteriologist, virologist, and physicist; physicist Edwin Lennox; biochemist Jacques Monod; physicist and biologist Leo Szilard; and Warren Weaver, an engineer, mathematician, and physicist. Weaver also served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Charles S. Wilson began work as the first General Manager before the Institute began in La Jolla, and William Glazier continued in the post after 1963. Dr. Salk himself served as the Institute's director until 1975, followed by Augustus Kinzel, and later Fredric de Hoffman.

The research conducted at the Institute came to be recognized as highly significant by the international scientific community. Included in this research has been the study of molecular-cellular mechanisms in genetics, immunology, and neurobiology, and the application of these studies to the prevention of cancer, diabetes, and myasthenia gravis. Institute researchers have also studied problems of genetic defects, aging, fertility control, alcoholism, and the biological foundations of language acquisition, language disorders, and learning.

After moving to San Diego, Dr. Salk continued to conduct his own research with his own laboratory staff. Among the research carried out by the Salk Lab has been studies aimed at understanding and manipulating the immune system in its relationship to the control of autoimmune and neoplastic diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis (MS). During the 1970s Dr. Salk devoted much attention to the prevention and treatment of MS, and between 1978 and 1980 he participated in an extensive MS study with a team headed by Dr. John S. Romine of the University of California, San Diego. With funding from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Salk-Romine study tested the use of myelin basic protein as a therapeutic agent in the treatment of MS.

In the 1980s Dr. Salk collaborated in successful studies aimed at the development, production, and field testing of a new noninfectious polio vaccine designed to give life-long immunity from a single dose. The new vaccine can now be administered in combination with other vaccines for the prevention of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, thus simplifying routine childhood immunization. Also in the 1980s Dr. Salk worked with international health organizations to implement and improve immunization programs throughout the world.

Dr. Salk's most recent (1988) scientific endeavor involved prevention of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. With his son, Peter, he tested his theory that immunization can be carried out on those already infected with the HIV virus. In addition to this clinical work, Dr. Salk was active in raising funds for AIDS research and in lobbying for greater public support for this research.

Aside from Dr. Salk's career as a scientific investigator and director of a research institution, he wrote numerous articles and books on a variety of topics. He documented his research in more than 100 articles in scientific journals, and wrote additional articles on topics such as education, health care, world problems, and the place of man in the global environment.

In the early 1970s Dr. Salk began writing extensively on the subject of human evolution and the potential of mankind. Some of these writings appeared in two books: MAN UNFOLDING (1972) and THE SURVIVAL OF THE WISEST (1973). In the latter book, Dr. Salk discussed his theory of metabiology -- a theory that relates to man's potential for transcending the ordinary limits of living matter. He theorized that Mankind was on the threshold of a new era -- Epoch B -- in which a new form of human consciousness might prevail. Such a consciousness would, he felt, enable mankind to draw upon imagination and intellect for overcoming the serious physical challenges to survival that have arisen in the modern era. Dr. Salk further expanded his ideas in the book WORLD POPULATION AND HUMAN VALUES (1981), written in collaboration with his son Jonathan, and in his most recent book ANATOMY OF REALITY: MERGING OF INTUITION AND REASON (1983).

Dr. Salk's concern for the quality of human life has extended far beyond the laboratory. He has devoted time and effort to organizations supporting the arts, sciences, and education, and the alleviation of hunger, disease, poverty and war. In these efforts, Dr. Salk has participated in such organizations as the Council for Biology in Human Affairs, Epoch B Foundation, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Native Americans Rights Fund - National Support Committee, Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Population Reference Bureau, the World Affairs Council of San Diego, and the World Future Society. In 1979 Dr. Salk was chosen for the board of directors of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a philanthropic trust which funds, among other things, projects and institutions in the arts, sciences, and humanities.

In 1970 Dr. Salk was elected to the board of directors of the Dreyfus Fund, a mutual fund investment organization. As member of the board, Dr. Salk has helped to set the general investment policies carried out by fund's investment officers. His presence added a broader and more humanistic voice to the otherwise business-minded board.

The live versus killed polio vaccine debate reemerged in the mid-1970s. Because the oral live polio vaccine (OPV) had been used almost exclusively in the United States since 1961, data on the incidence of polio could be evaluated in a new light. It was shown that while the Sabin vaccine had virtually obliterated wild-virus polio in the United States, it in fact inflicted paralytic polio on an estimated 10 persons per year. Furthermore, countries such as Finland and Sweden, which had utilized only the killed vaccine in their immunization campaigns, did not have a polio problem. These facts provided Jonas Salk, his son Darrell, and other supporters with a new and compelling argument against the United States' preference for the Sabin vaccine. If the Salk vaccine was proven safe and effective in other countries, and did not cause polio, why was the U.S. using a vaccine that had been proven to maim and kill? Supporters of the Sabin vaccine countered that the benefits of the live vaccine far outweighed its deleterious effects, asserting that the live vaccine was easier to administer, it was cheaper and it could spread its immunizing effects on to people who merely came into contact with someone who had recently taken the vaccine. Furthermore, they argued, the incidence of vaccine associated polio was minor when compared to the millions of vaccinations given each year. These factors, though debatable, managed to keep the majority of the medical community and their preference for the oral vaccine unmoved by Salk's assertions.

Arguments against the Sabin vaccine did finally gain unprecedented attention when the victims of vaccine-induced polio began taking their claims to court and winning. One jury in Kansas awarded a victim 10 million dollars. These lawsuits had an enormous impact on the debate because they finally awakened the general public to the dangers inherent in the live vaccine and compelled the government and the manufacturers of the vaccine, who were often faulted in these cases, to look for alternatives. Furthermore, vaccine manufacturers, frightened by the lawsuits, either dropped out of the market or lobbied the government for protection from litigation, thereby making it more expensive to produce the live vaccine. The lawsuits also managed to shake up some physicians who were afraid of being sued for administering a potentially deadly vaccine and, as a result, caused the debate to flare within the medical community. Jonas and Darrell Salk realized the impact litigation would have on the debate and one or the other often served as an advisor to lawyers for the plaintiff. Darrell was an expert witness in many of the trials.

Despite these blows to the eminence of the Sabin vaccine in the U.S., the fact that the Sabin vaccine was easier to administer continued to make it more attractive to physicians and to the government. The Sabin vaccine was administered orally in three doses to induce immunity. In contrast, the Salk vaccine was administered by injection, and was thought to require booster doses to maintain immunity. This argument against the Salk vaccine was seriously challenged with the announcement in 1977 of the enhanced inactivated polio vaccine, or E-IPV. E-IPV required only 1-2 doses and could be blended with other children's vaccines, such as the diptheria-pertussis vaccine, to streamline vaccination programs. The Merieux Institute of France, the Connaught Laboratories in Canada, and the Rijks Institute in the Netherlands were the developers of the new vaccine and Salk collaborated extensively with these laboratories.

Dr. Salk has three sons: Peter, Darrell and Jonathan. In 1970 he married the French artist Francoise Gilot. Jonas Salk died in June 1995.

From the guide to the Jonas Salk Papers, 1926 - 1991, (University of California, San Diego. Geisel Library. Mandeville Special Collections Library.)

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Subjects:

  • Virologists--United States--Biography
  • Science--Social aspects
  • Virologists--Biography
  • Medicine--Study and teaching
  • Medical scientists
  • Biochemistry--Research
  • Poliomyelitis vaccine
  • Multiple sclerosis--Research
  • Poliomyelitis--Research
  • Medical research personnel

Occupations:

  • Physicians
  • Scientists
  • Medical research personnel

Places:

  • New York, NY, US
  • La Jolla, CA, US