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Salk, Jonas

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Jonas Salk

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Jonas Salk
(October 28, 1914 - June 23, 1995)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1955

Image Courtesy: Lasker Foundation

His Polio Vaccine Rescued the World's Children and Parents from Fear

Jonas Salk developed the first effective vaccine against polio. Before the Salk vaccine was released in 1955, American parents were terrorized by devastating summer polio epidemics, which seemed to increase in severity each year, to the point where 300,000 cases and 58,000 deaths were reported in 1952. Many victims were left paralyzed for life. Salk, with funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes Foundation), used virology techniques developed by John Enders to develop a "killed" polio vaccine, in which the virus was still intact enough to trigger an immune response. On April 12, 1955, the day the vaccine was declared "safe and effective," Salk became a national hero in a way that no scientist previously had, or has since. According to one historian, "April 12th had almost become a national holiday: people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, kept their red lights red in brief periods of tribute, took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies." Within two years of the vaccine's release, over 100 million Americans had been immunized, as well as millions more around the globe. Naturally occurring polio was eliminated in the U.S. in 1979, and due to both Salk's killed vaccine and Albert Sabin's live vaccine, it has been nearly eradicated from the world, with the exception of a few thousand cases isolated in a few countries.

During the first half of the 20th century, no illness inspired more dread and panic than did polio. It came in epidemics and mainly infected children in the summer, creating great scares for parents. Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. Most infected patients recover, but in a minority of patients, the virus attacks the nervous system. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

Jonas Salk, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up and got his education in New York City before going to Michigan to work on a flu vaccine. He joined the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in 1947, and proceeded to collaborate with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes Foundation). The foundation agreed to fund Salk's investigation of a polio vaccine and he dedicated the next several years to his pursuit. Salk took advantage of the new tissue culture methods developed by John Enders and his team, who had discovered how to grow large quantities of viruses in test tubes. Following successful testing of his vaccine on monkeys, Salk turned to human testing. He conducted his first clinical trials at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, a school dedicated to the care and education of children with disabilities. The tests were successful, and Salk next tested the vaccine on volunteers - including himself, his wife, and his children. In 1954, he began a nationwide clinical trial involving two million children between the ages of six and nine.

For parents, the Salk vaccine was a godsend, with active polio cases plummeting by almost 90 percent in the first two years following its introduction. Polio has now been virtually eradicated in countries using Salk's vaccine. The last cases of naturally occurring paralytic polio in the United States were in 1979, when an outbreak struck several Amish communities in the Midwest. In 1963 Salk established the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The center is a world-class research facility that concentrates on molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, and plant biology. Salk died on June 23, 1995 and spent much of his last years searching for a vaccine for AIDS.


Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

Academy of Achievement biography:

The Salk Institute profile:

Time Magazine profile:

Wikipedia entry:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: Polio Vaccine
John Enders
Revolutionized virology - did pivotal early polio vaccine work and developed the measles vaccine.
Frederick Robbins
Worked with Enders on developing tissue cell culture techniques for viruses.
Thomas Weller
Came up with several breakthrough ideas in the development of tissue cell culture techniques for viruses.
Thomas Francis Jr
Influenza and polio vaccine - taught Jonas Salk critical vaccine development technique.
Albert Sabin
Developed the "live" polio vaccine, given on a sugar cube, used throughout the world.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

McPherson, Stephanie. Jonas Salk: Conquering Polio. (Ages 9-12) Lerner Publications, 2001.

Barter, James. The Importance of Jonas Salk. (YA) Lucent Books, 2003.

Reis, Ronald. Jonas Salk: Microbiologist. Ferguson Publishing Company, 2005. 

Bredeson, Carmen. Jonas Salk: Discoverer of the Polio Vaccine (People to Know). (YA) Enslow Pub Inc, 1993.

Parks, Peggy. Giants of Science - Jonas Salk. (Ages 9-12) Blackbirch Marketing, 2003. 

Durrett, Deanne. Jonas Salk (Inventors and Creators). (Ages 9-12) KidHaven Press, 2002.

Hargrove, Jim. The story of Jonas Salk and the discovery of the polio vaccine (Cornerstones of freedom). (Ages 9-12) Childrens Press, 1990.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science