Jump to: navigation, search

Dr. Jonas Salk was a virologist and medical researcher from the United States who discovered and cultivated the first working polio vaccine in history. Salk worked through the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to develop the vaccine and refused to patent it once discovered saying millions of lives around the world. He established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which still exists as a large scientific and medical research center.

Youth and Education

Jonas Edward Salk was born in New York City on October 28, 1914. The first born son of three, he was the first in his family to enroll in college. His parents, Daniel Salk and Dora Press, were Jewish immigrants from Russia.[1] Salk first attended Townsend Harris High School, an advanced public high school, in 1927.[2]

Dr. Jonas Salk combined his love of research and his desire to help humanity to create a vaccine that continues to save millions of lives.

In 1934, Salk received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from City College of New York. [3] He began studying medicine at New York University who had a better acceptance rate for Jewish students. [4] Salk understood from the beginning of his medical schooling that he wanted to conduct research rather than practice as a physician. He took a year off to study biochemistry and this led to his interest in bacteriology.[5] He decided he wanted to help humanity as a whole, rather than as individual patients.

Polio Vaccine History and Dr. Jonas Salk

Post-Graduate Research

Dr. Jonas Salk began his postgraduate research in 1941. He worked in Dr. Thomas Francis’s virology laboratory at the University of Michigan, where he developed a passion for virology. Dr. Francis had recently discovered a second influenza virus at the Rockefeller Foundation.[6] Salk worked with Francis again in his laboratory at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, New York, where he excelled as a surgeon, clinician, and researcher.[7]

Early Research Career

The polio epidemic frightened the nation and encouraged the ample funding of polio research which allowed Dr. Jonas Salk to secure a position in a quality laboratory despite the Jewish quotas.

Dr. Salk struggled to find a research position after graduating due to many hospitals and laboratories enforcing a Jewish quota. He could not remain at Mount Sinai since they did not hire their interns. He reached out to Dr. Francis who secured him a job at his new laboratory at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. The pair developed a successful influenza vaccine for the U. S. Army.

Dr. Salk again struggled to find his own laboratory in 1947, but the dean at the University of Pittsburg’s Medical School accepted his request. The initial quarters were small and ill-stocked. He contacted the Mellon family who granted him enough funds to create a real virology lab and continue researching influenza vaccines. He then began his work on polio with the National Foundation of Infantile paralysis after the research director asked him to join.[8]

Discovery and Distribution

Dr. Jonas Salk joined director Harry Weaver in 1948 with the promise he could continue his influenza research after working with polio.[9] Since previous “live” vaccinations proved fatal, Salk decided to try a “dead” version. Dr. Salk injected 43 children from D. T. Watson Home for Crippled Children on July 2, 1952.[10]

Dr. Salk first tested the vaccine on himself, his wife, and his three children as stated at his announcement in November 1953.[11] Testing of the vaccine began in 1954 and by mid-1957, over 100 million doses were distributed to patients across the U. S. and millions more around the world.[12]

Polio became almost extinct by 1962 and the world transitioned to the “dead” Salk vaccine exclusively.[13] Cutter Laboratories manufactured a vaccine batch contaminated with the “live” virus in 1955 which led to the death of five children and 56 being paralyzed and is known as the Cutter incident.[14]

The Salk Institute

In 1963, Dr. Jonas Salk opened his own laboratory in La Jolla, San Diego, California, called the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The National Science Foundation supported the lab with a $20 million grant from the March of Dimes. In the 1980s, he began researching a vaccine for the newly developing epidemic, AIDS, and continued to do so until his death. The Institute continued the AIDS research until 2007[15]

Family and Death

In 1939, only one day after graduating medical school, Jonas Salk married Donna Lindsey. Lindsay was pursuing her master’s in social work from New York College. Her father would only give them permission to marry if once he officially became a physician and if he would give himself a middle name since he did not have one. The couple bore three sons named Peter, Darrell, and Jonathan. The pair divorced in 1968 and Salk remarried in 1970 to Françoise Gilot.[16]

Dr. Jonas Salk died in La Jolla, California of heart failure on June 23, 1968.[17] He is buried in San Diego at El Camino Memorial Park.[18]



Oshinsky, D. M. (2006). Polio: An American Story. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sherrow, V. (2008). Jonas Salk: Beyond the Microscope. United States: Chelsea House Publishers.

The Salk Institute. About Jonas Salk. Salk Institute for Biological Studies.


  1. The Salk Institute
  2. Oshinsky, 2006
  3. Sherrow, 2008
  4. Oshinsky, 2006
  5. Sherrow, 2008
  6. Bookchin, D., & Schumacher, J. (2005). The Virus and the Vaccine: Contaminated Vaccine, Deadly Cancers, and Government Neglect. New York, NY, United States: St. Martin’s Press.
  7. Oshinsky, 2006
  8. Bookchin, D., & Schumacher, J. (2005). The Virus and the Vaccine: Contaminated Vaccine, Deadly Cancers, and Government Neglect. New York, NY, United States: St. Martin’s Press.
  9. McPherson, S. S. (2001). Jonas Salk: Conquering Polio. Durham, NC, United States: Lerner Publications.
  10. Colt, S. (2009, April 07). American Experience: The Polio Crusade. WGBH Educational Foundation.
  11. ”Anti-Polio Vaccine Guaranteed By Salk” (1953, November 13). The New York Times.
  12. World Polio Cut By Salk Vaccine: Safety and Effectiveness of Preventive Confirmed at Geneva Conference (1957, July 10). The New York Times.
  13. Salk Polio Vaccine Gets State Priority; State Now Leans To Salk Vaccine (1962, September 23). The New York Times.
  14. Offit, P. A. (2005). The Cutter Incident, 50 years Later. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(14), 1411–1412. doi:10.1056/nejmp048180
  15. The Salk Institute
  16. Oshinsky, 2006
  17. Schmeck, H. M. (1995, June 24). Dr. Jonas Salk, Whose Vaccine Turned Tide on Polio, Dies at 80. The New York Times - Obituaries.
  18. Find A Grave. (1998, November 03). Jonas Salk (1914 - 1995). Find A Grave Memorial.

Recent Comments

Show More Comments

Post a Comment

Please login to post a comment