Jonas Salk
Answer to Name This Famous Person Game - November 2012

by Mike McLeod

“Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do or what not to do.”

Jonas Salk was correctly identified, in a team effort, by Julie Kimbrell and Sherry Blanton of Old School Antique Mall in Sylva, N.C., and he was also identified by: Jim Pruett and Bob and Page Craig of the Eastbrook Flea Market and Antique Mall in Montgomery, Ala.; Linda Najarian of Broad Street Antique Mall in Chamblee, Ga.; Sherron Lawson of Roswell, Ga.; Carol Lindsey; and Peggy Milton of Franklin, Tenn., who often shops with “…the good folk at Whistlestop Antique Mall. As a volunteer for REACH of Macon Co., N.C., I help maintain a booth at the mall. Proceeds benefit programs and services of REACH, which helps victims of domestic violence.”

These all knew that Jonas Salk created one of the first vaccines for polio and was hailed as a hero for doing so. Perhaps you thought Jonas Salk was the only person to create a vaccine for that dreaded disease or was the first to do so. As Alex Trebeck would say on Jeopardy, “Oooo, sorry.”

Jonas Salk’s story began in New York City when he was born on October 28, 1914 to Daniel and Dora Salk, who were of Russian-Jewish immigrant extraction. He had two brothers. His father was a garment worker, and both his parents had little education.

Salk was extremely intelligent for his age, and he excelled at school. He attended medical school, and although he served his residency well, he decided to go into medical research to help people in general rather than one at a time.

In 1938, Salk assisted in the research for a vaccine against influenza, the greatest killer known at that time. “The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I, at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as "Spanish Flu" or "La Grippe," the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.” 1

It was during this work and during his studies that Salk learned about creating a vaccine by killing a virus with formaldehyde and then injecting the dead virus into a person. The body’s immune-response system then created the antibodies to fight off a live virus.

In 1947, Salk was hired by the University of Pittsburgh to create a research lab. Finding the workspace provided was ill-equipped and not up to par for advanced research, Salk acquired grants and brought the laboratory up to standards. Sometime thereafter, he was invited by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later became the March of Dimes) to begin research for a polio vaccine.

Polio epidemics began in the late 1800s, but small numbers of people were affected. However, after WWII in the mid-1940s, cases hit about 25,000 in the U.S., and in 1953, more than 55,000 people were struck.

Dr. Richard Aldrich reported: “The first summer when I was home in Minnesota was that gosh-awful polio epidemic they had there. We admitted 464 proven cases of polio just at the University Hospital, which is unbelievable. And this was a very severe paralytic form. Maybe two or three hours after a lot of these kids would come in with a stiff neck or a fever, they’d be dead. It was unbelievable. It was just loads of people that came in, sometimes with only a fever but usually a headache and a little stiffness in the neck. And just absolutely terrified. At the height of the epidemic, the people in Minneapolis were so frightened that there was nobody in the restaurants. There was practically no traffic, the stores were empty. It just was considered a feat of bravado almost to go out and mingle in public. A lot of people just took up and moved away, went to another city.”2

Until the mid-1900s, no one knew what caused polio. The virus often infected whole populations, but only about one percent ever developed the disease. It was and is transmitted through contaminated food or water or from mouth to mouth from an infected person. Not washing the hands properly could pass it on. Wisely, many parents did not allow their kids go to the local swimming hole or public pools during the summers when cases of polio were highest.

Compared to other diseases like influenza, polio struck relatively few; however, it caused great fear because of its effects on kids. The images of children in iron lungs (which helped them breathe despite paralysis) and on crutches with leg braces struck terror in the hearts of parents—as rightly it should have.

I can never seem to pass up an opportunity to create a guessing game. Which of the following people contracted polio?

Alan Alda

Frank Mars (of M&M Mars)

Itzhak Perlman

Arthur C. Clarke

Senator Mitch McConnell, Jr.

Sir Walter Scott

Judy Collins

Joni Mitchell

Dinah Shore

Francis Ford Coppola

Jack Nicklaus

Donald Sutherland

Mia Farrow

Robert Oppenheimer

Neil Young

It is probably obvious that they all did.3

Jonas Salk and his team of researchers developed a vaccine made from dead polio virus. After successfully testing it on animals, Salk took the vaccine himself. His first wife Donna (maiden name Lindsay) and their three sons Peter, Darrell and Jonathan volunteered to receive it4, which was a brave thing to do. Salk also tested it on children in a school for the mentally handicapped. Today, this is unthinkable. Salk had done something similar with the research team working on the influenza virus when they gave the vaccine to patients in an insane asylum.

I am not passing judgment here, just stating facts. Other researchers did the same thing with other vaccines, giving them to people in prisons and children in orphanages. One researcher, Isabel Merrick, developed a successful polio vaccine in 1948 before Salk, but she chose not to try it on humans because of the risk of infection. She did inject monkeys with her vaccine, and they then survived a live virus. If she had experimented on children, perhaps many of the 55,000 people who contracted polio in 1953 may have avoided it and lives could have been saved. But would that have been ethical? Would you do it if a child could develop polio and become paralyzed or die?

It is said Salk built upon her work and others, and this is the reason given as to why he never received the Nobel Prize. For that matter, none of the developers of polio vaccines received the Nobel Prize.

In 1954, to test the vaccine completely, a nationwide trial on 1.8 million children was administered, without government approval or aid. Doctors, nurses, parents and volunteers numbering more than 200,000 across the country administered the trial in which about half of the children received the vaccine, and the rest received a placebo. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis funded this trial.5

On April 12, 1955, in a national broadcast on television and radio, it was announced that Dr. Salk’s vaccine worked. Almost the whole country came to a standstill for the announcement. Church bells rang, horns honked, people cheered and prayed. Salk was hailed as a hero, at least, if not a savior. Two years later, polio cases dropped by about 85 percent.

Salk’s victory was marred by an incident in which a manufacturer of the vaccine accidentally infected a batch with a live virus. Five people died and more than 50 were infected. Because Salk and Sabin did not patent their vaccines (which they refused to do on purpose), the U.S. Government licensed certain companies to manufacture it. One of these, Cutter Laboratories, was responsible for the infection.

Salk was hailed worldwide for his vaccine, and he received a multitude of awards, including a Presidential Citation from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (A video of the presentation is at

If you remember receiving the polio vaccine in a sugar cube like I do, you did not receive the Salk vaccine. It was administered by injection. You and I received the Sabin vaccine which was a live virus in a weakened state. In 1961, Dr. Albert Sabin produced his vaccine which he had worked on for years. Sabin’s vaccine was soon used to fight polio because it required no booster shots, and it prevented the virus from being passed on in fecal matter as Salk’s vaccine allowed. Also, Sabin’s oral vaccine targeted the virus in the gut where it grew, and Salk’s entered the blood stream to immunize against the virus.

Yet, in 1998, the medical establishment returned to the dead-virus vaccine after it was determined the live-virus vaccine had caused some cases of polio.

There is a controversy around polio. Some researchers say the number of cases have been overstated due to other paralysis-causing diseases being misidentified as polio. (A 2003 review of FDR’s paralysis has postulated he had Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune disease, and not polio.) Certainly, many cases were misdiagnosed; however, it seems thousands were not. It is hard to say how many people were saved from paralysis or death, but parents of that era have no doubt about the work of Jonas Salk.

Because of a lack of immunization efforts on the part of governments, it was reported in 1988 that 350,000 people worldwide contracted polio. An initiative was begun by UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International and the CDC, and in 2004, the number of cases reported plummeted to about 1,200 worldwide. Since 1988, about 2.5 billion children have been inoculated.

On the personal side, Salk’s wife Donna divorced him in 1968 on the grounds of cruelty. In 1970, he married Françoise Gilot who was the mother of Pablo Picasso’s two children.

Dr. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995. He is still heralded as the conqueror of polio. 


There were many researchers worldwide who fought polio. One other person who deserves to be mentioned is Hilary Koprowski. In 1948, Koprowski tested his live vaccine made from infected and ground-up rat brain by swallowing a solution of it. He also tested it on monkeys and mentally-handicapped children. It proved effective. He presented his research in 1951 at a meeting attended by Jonas Salk. It is said Albert Sabin benefitted from his work.

In the end, Sabin’s research was chosen for funding over Koprowski’s; his vaccine was not used after initial trials. Yet, he did create a vaccine for polio, and he should be remembered for doing so.6


1 Stanford University, 2A Paralyzing Fear by Nina Gilden Seavey, Jane S. Smith and Paul Wagner.
3 Post-Polio Resource Group,
4 Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
5 Funding Universe,
6 A brief overview of his story is at

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