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Jonas Salk

developer of the "dead virus" polio vaccine

Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914, the first of three sons born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His parents made sure their sons would get the education they had been unable to achieve, and, after graduating from Townsend Harris High School in 1929, Jonas became the first person in his family to attend college. He receievd his bachelor of science degree from City College of New York in 1934, and then entered the New York University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1939; he subsequently did his internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

While at New York University, Salk was invited to spend a year researching influenza with microbiologist Thomas Francis, Jr. at the University of Michigan. Returning to the University of Michigan as a research fellow in 1942, he and Francis resumed their work on influenza and were able to develop a vaccine that prevented a repeat of the deadly worldwide flu epidemic that had followed World War I.

In 1947, Salk became the head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, where he worked to improve his flu vaccine. His work on the flu vaccine led him to begin researching a vaccine for polio, a disease which had reached epidemic proportions amongst American children. With funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (commonly known as the March of Dimes), he applied findings from many other sciences and scientists to, first, discover a a way to produce large quantities of the virus, and, then, a way to kill the virus with formaldehyde so that it was still intact enough to cause a reaction in the human body without producing the disease itself. By 1952 he had developed a "dead virus" vaccine, which he subsequently tested by using it on himself, his wife and their three sons, and a few volunteers from within his research staff. All of the volunteers soon began showing active antibodies against polio, without any of them developing any trace of the disease. He published his results in the Journal of the American Medical Association the following year, and nationwide testing began soon after. Salk's vaccine was approved for public use on April 12, 1955, and by 1961 the incidence of polio among American children had been reduced by 97 percent. Wanting to see the vaccine disseminated as widely as possible, Salk refused to patent his vaccine. A "live virus" polio vaccine developed by Albert Sabin and approved for use in the United States in 1961 eventually replaced Salk's "dead virus" vaccine.

Salk being welcomed into the Hall of Fame of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation by Basil O'Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, on January 2, 1958.
Jonas Salk at the Warm Springs Foundation Hall of Fame

In 1963, Salk opened the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, which is still one of the world's most prestigious facilities for research into AIDs, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and plant biology. Jonas Salk died of congestive heart failure in La Jolla on June 23, 1995, and is buried in El Camino Memorial Park, San Diego.


The Jonas Salk Center
Notorious Names Databse
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies

See Also

World War I
Albert Sabin
Eleanor Roosevelt

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The Robinson Library >> Microbiology

This page was last updated on 12/31/2018.