Jonas Salk

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Salk speaking before the Centers for Disease Control at the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine
Live, reproduce, die
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Life as we know it
Divide and multiply
Great Apes
Could you patent the sun?
—Jonas Salk

Jonas Edward Salk (1914–1995) was an American chemist and virologist who developed the world's first successful polio vaccine[note 1] which was made available in 1955. In 1952, the disease impacted almost 58,000 people in the United States alone.[1] Of the roughly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis.[2] In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Jonas Salk went on to write a few books detailing his biophilosophy and would spend his later years studying AIDS and trying to find a cure for it. Despite not winning a Nobel Prize for his remarkable achievement, he is generally regarded as a genuine hero who positively impacted the lives of countless people.

Early life[edit]

Salk was born to Jewish parents in New York. He earned a B.S. in chemistry at the City College of New York before going on to earn a medical degree at New York University. Salk was the first member of his family to attend college. He became heavily involved in and fascinated with scientific research, preferring it to a potential career as an actual physician.[3] In 1942, Salk went to the University of Michigan where he helped develop an influenza vaccine used in WW2.[4]


Thanks, Jonas.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis (inability to move parts of the body). Most who contract the disease will not exhibit signs of it, though they can still infect others. Those that do show symptoms may experience headaches, stomach pain, fever, and sore throat. Polio is spread from person to person via oral contact with fecal matter or from coughing, hence it tends to be found in places with very poor water sanitation. Additionally, the poliovirus prefers warmer climates.

Because polio can only impact humans, it can in theory be eradicated, and at present, it still only exists in 3 nations.[note 2][5] The first evidence of polio comes from mummies in ancient Egypt with deformed limbs. References towards a disease like polio appear as early as the 18th century but the disease was not named and identified until the 19th.[6] The first major epidemic in American history was in 1916, infecting about 27,000 people and killing roughly 7,000 of them.

Salk vaccine[edit]

The polio virus magnified.
Jonas Salk and his cure.

Clean municipal water and new vaccines had dramatically reduced the prevalence of a number of contagious diseases in the developed world. Polio was a major exception which routinely plagued urban American centers during the summer, leaving many dead or permanently disabled.[7] Starting in the 1940s, a large public campaign to find a cure was launched called the March of Dimes. Previously, during the 1930s, scientists had unsuccessfully attempted to develop a vaccine for polio.[8]

In the 1940s, Salk took up the charge and began his research which would last 7 years before culminating in a massive public health field trial. He had controversially produced a "killed virus" vaccine which other researchers doubted could work given that the only proven method of inoculation before had been to use weakened forms of viruses for other diseases. Despite the unorthodox approach, over the 1950s, polio in America was beaten and the vaccine spread around the world. Salk tested the vaccine on himself and his family before starting the 1954 nation-wide experiment which involved over one million children ages six to nine. Declared a success in 1955, the government was quick to license the vaccine and enormous amounts of serum were quickly produced.[9][10] From a peak of about 58,000 cases in 1952, the number of cases of polio in the United States dropped to less than 1,000 in 1962.

By the 1960s, the Albert Sabin oral vaccine was developed and largely replaced the Salk vaccine worldwide. Oral vaccination is still the primary method of inoculation in the Third World.[11][12] Because of potential problems with the Sabin vaccine, in 1999, a federal advisory panel recommended that the United States return to Salk’s vaccine.[13][note 3]

Later research[edit]

Jonas Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in 1960. The institute studies a vast number of scientific topics including aging, cancer, plant biology, immunology, neuroscience, and metabolism. Salk spent the end of his life there in the 1980s and 1990s studying HIV/AIDS and working to develop a vaccine for it.[14] A number of prominent scientists worked there as well, including Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, Terrence Sejnowski, Leo Szilard, Katherine Jones, and Renato Dulbecco.


  • Man Unfolding (1972)
  • Survival of the Wisest (1973)
  • World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981)
  • Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason (1983)

See also[edit]

  • Vaccine
  • John Enders led a team that successfully cultivated the poliovirus in human tissue, paving the way for many new vaccines, including polio.
  • Albert Sabin


  1. A failed attempt to develop a vaccine had been made by physician Maurice BrodieWikipedia in 1935. It didn't confer immunity and many children tested had an allergic reaction to it.
  2. Those nations being Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
  3. Although very small, a risk for paralysis from the live-virus vaccine does exist.


  1. Ochmann, Sophie; Roser, Max (10 October 2017). "Polio". Our World in Data. Retrieved 2020-01-08.
  2. Polio Fact Sheet Pennsylvania Department of Health
  3. Tan, Siang Yong; Ponstein, Nate (2019-1). "Jonas Salk (1914–1995): A vaccine against polio". Singapore Medical Journal. 60 (1): 9–10. /
  4. "Jonas Salk | Lemelson-MIT Program". Retrieved 2020-01-08.
  5. "What is Polio?". 2019-10-21. Retrieved 2020-01-21.
  6. Baicus, Anda (2012-08-12). "History of polio vaccination". World Journal of Virology. 1 (4): 108–114. doi:10.5501/wjv.v1.i4.108. ISSN 2220-3249.
  7. "NMAH | Polio: The Iron Lung and Other Equipment".
  8. Baicus, A. (2012). History of polio vaccination. World journal of virology, 1(4), 108.
  9. Francis, T. (1955). Evaluation of the 1954 poliomyelitis vaccine field trial: further studies of results determining the effectiveness of poliomyelitis vaccine (Salk) in preventing paralytic poliomyelitis. Journal of the American Medical Association, 158(14), 1266-1270.
  10. Rose, D. R. "Fact sheet-polio vaccine field trial of 1954." March of Dimes Archives 11 (2004).
  11. Horaud, F. (1993). Albert B. Sabin and the development of oral polio vaccine. Biologicals, 21(4), 311-316.
  12. "Why do we still use Sabin poliovirus vaccine?" (10 Sept 2015)
  13. "Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin". Science History Institute. 2016-06-01. Retrieved 2020-01-09