Salk House

Honoring Dr. Jonas Edward Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Edward Salk (1914-95) was an American medical researcher who discovered and developed the first successful polio vaccine. Born in New York City, he attended New York University School of Medicine, later choosing to do medical research instead of becoming a practicing physician. He completed a research fellowship at the University of Michigan and was a faculty member at the University of Michigan in the School of Public Health, where he worked on developing an influenza vaccine.

In 1947, Dr. Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. He saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio, and, together with the skilled research team he assembled, devoted himself to this work for the next seven years. When news of the vaccine's success was made public on April 12, 1955, Dr. Salk was hailed as a “miracle worker” and the day almost became a national holiday. He campaigned for mandatory vaccination, claiming that public health should be considered a “moral commitment.” His sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as rapidly as possible, with no interest in personal profit. When asked who owned the patent to it, he said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

In 1960, Dr. Salk founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which today is a center for medical and scientific research. He continued to conduct research and publish books, including Man Unfolding (1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973), World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981), and Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason (1983). Salk's last years were spent searching for a vaccine against HIV.

His life and work offers a variety of virtues and values we can continue to aspire to. From the standpoint of professionalism, he was an individual who subverted his own self-interest for the benefit of others. He was diligent and a scientist of distinct integrity, and as a physician-scientist was driven by wonder, and by compassion and a personal desire to improve the lives of others. In this capacity he was a benevolent individual, a physician of great curiosity, courage, and commitment, and one with a vision to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow.