Jonas Edward Salk, the legendary immunologist who earned the undying admiration of the American people but the scorn of his scientific peers for his dramatic discovery of the first polio vaccine, died Friday of congestive heart failure. He was 80.
Although he had a history of heart trouble, Salk’s death was unexpected.
He was taken Friday morning to the Green Hospital of Scripps Clinic, and died there, according to officials at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the institute he founded.
Salk spent his final years trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS a project he did not begin until he was in his 70s - and was immersed in that effort until his death.
Salk was a hero to an entire generation, a household name in his day. Presidents lauded him. Fans wrote him letters from far-flung corners of the world. Schoolchildren sent him thankyou notes for including them in the tests of his polio vaccine, which virtually wiped out the disease. Everywhere he went, for as long as he lived, parents stopped him to praise him for freeing them from the fear of polio, the most dreaded scourge of its time.
“Freedom from fear,” Salk said in 1993, in a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the most powerful of all emotions. I’ll always remember Franklin Roosevelt (himself a polio victim) saying there is nothing to fear but fear itself. I sure learned how important freeing people from fear would be.”
Salk was a young man, just past 40, when the polio vaccine he developed was approved in 1955 and he never came back with an encore quite as compelling. But he never stopped trying. After “the polio days,” as he called them, he founded the Salk Institute. Then, at a time when it would have been easy for him to retire, he sought to conquer an adversary more daunting than polio: AIDS.
He dabbled in philosophy as he grew older, writing several books, among them one called “The Survival of the Wisest.”
Salk had a clever way with words, and his conversations were sprinkled with witticisms.
“Do you exercise?” Dr. Dean Ornish, the well-known health expert, once asked him. “I exercise restraint,” Salk blithely replied.
Brilliant and impatient, ambitious and irascible, Salk was as much a celebrity as he was a legend.
Yet he never achieved the top prizes bestowed to scientists. Although some said he desperately wanted a Nobel, the only Nobel ever to be awarded for polio went to John Enders, a Harvard researcher who discovered how to grow poliovirus in test tubes - a monumental discovery that cleared a path for Salk to develop his vaccine.
Typical of Salk’s strained relations with other scientists was his lifelong battle with Dr. Albert Sabin, whose own polio vaccine - administered orally, on a sugar cube - eventually supplanted the Salk injection. The two aging scientists waged a bitter war of words that ended only with Sabin’s death in 1993.
“It was pure kitchen chemistry,” Sabin once said of Salk’s vaccine. “Salk didn’t discover anything.”
Yet even in the face of such sniping, science could not ignore Salk. Other researchers always listened when he spoke. And though his contemporaries often ridiculed him, many younger researchers, particularly those working with vaccines, regarded Salk as an elder statesman, often seeking his advice.
Born in New York City, Salk was the eldest son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His family lived in a tenement in Manhattan; his father worked in New York’s garment district.
Although he grew up to become a doctor, receiving his medical degree from New York University on June 8, 1939, Salk never intended to practice medicine. He was interested in biology and chemistry, and he wanted to do research.
In 1942, after a two-year internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Salk went to the University of Michigan to join the laboratory of one of his mentors at NYU, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. There, Salk spent six years researching the influenza virus and experimenting with different flu vaccines.
In 1947, Salk moved to the University of Pittsburgh. A year later, he joined with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis - now known as the March of Dimes - which had put together a committee of scientists to identify and type different strains of the polio virus.
At the time, polio was a terrifying plague - in many ways far more terrifying than AIDS is today. It struck randomly, afflicting children in particular. Many of its victims were left either paralyzed or dead; at the height of the polio epidemic, in the early 1950s, the disease killed or crippled 40,000 Americans each year.
In this atmosphere of panic, the pressure to find a cure was intense. In 1948, when Enders, the Harvard scientist, figured out how to grow poliovirus in test tubes, Salk saw immense possibilities. The ability to mass-produce the virus, he knew, meant scientists would finally be able to develop a polio vaccine. He quickly equipped his laboratory to do just that.
Within three years of Enders’ discovery, Salk was conducting preliminary safety tests of his polio vaccine on residents of the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, near Pittsburgh. One famous photograph shows Salk injecting the vaccine into son, Jonathan, while Salk’s first wife, Donna, looks on. (The Salks had three sons - Peter, Darrell and Jonathan; all grew up to be doctors.)
By 1954, nationwide field trials of what would later be named the “Salk vaccine” were under way, with financial backing from the March of Dimes. The subjects were schoolchildren - the so-called “Polio Pioneers.”
It was a remarkable experiment that would probably not be permitted by today’s safety-conscious bureaucracy. But even then, the Salk vaccine trials drew complaints, mostly from other scientists, who complained that Salk and the March of Dimes were moving much too quickly, that Salk should have published his safety data in medical journals for other scientists to review.
But Salk pressed on, and on April 12, 1955, at 10:20 a.m., the news was released to the world through a bulletin that clacked over The Associated Press wire: “The Salk Polio Vaccine is safe effective and potent, it was announced today.”
Salk became an instant hero. That night, he was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow in a much-watched and often-quoted live broadcast of “See It Now.”
“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Murrow asked.
“Well,” Salk replied, “the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Indeed, Salk never made a penny from his vaccine. But the remark, and the publicity that surrounded it, earned him the enmity of his scientific peers. In 1993, reflecting on how his life had changed since then, he recalled the meeting with Murrow:
“What comes to mind,” he said, “is something that Edward R. Murrow said to me on the evening of April 12, 1955, which is quoted from time to time. He said: ‘Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you. You have lost your anonymity.’ Well, you can see the nature of the tragedy. I’ve become a celebrity. That’s contrary to what a person in the field of science is supposed to be.”
By 1961, the Salk polio vaccine had reduced the incidence of polio by as much as 95 percent, preventing an estimated 300,000 cases. That same year, the federal government licensed production of a traditional live-virus vaccine developed by Sabin. Sabin’s oral vaccine replaced the Salk injection, and is the one in use today.
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