Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk

Anna Wright, Writer

Driven by discovery, many scientists spend hours in labs or in the field conducting  research in order to explain the intricacies of the environment, advance technological  equipment, or cure illnesses that plague society, one of the more recent developments being  the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite these motivations, other scientists derive incentive from less  altruistic means such as fame or wealth. That was not Jonas Salk. As the inventor of the polio  vaccine, the scientist had an open avenue towards affluency, yet he did not take it. An  interviewer once inquired, “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” to which Salk responded, “Well the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” With these words,  Jonas Salk not only announced his gratuitous actions but also exemplified a mentality seen  increasingly less in the scientific industry: science for the sake of science.  

After graduating from New York University with a degree in medicine, Salk began his  scientific career developing a vaccine to treat a completely different virus. With the  collaborative efforts of fellow lead researcher, Thomas Francis, he successfully developed the  first influenza vaccine using fertilized chicken eggs, a method still applied to vaccine  development today. Nonetheless, his most prominent work did not occur for another ten years. 

In the early 20th century, a deadly epidemic terrorized the US caused by a virus  identified as poliomyelitis or more commonly known by its infamous name: polio. Young  children, the most susceptible demographic, would suddenly fall sick, experiencing flu-like symptoms; however, their ailments did not always end there. In some cases, victims of the virus suffered paralysis in the arms, legs, or lungs leaving roughly 35,000 people disabled each year in  the late 1940’s. After decades of suffering without an end in sight, Jonas Salk fortunately began  his research for a cure. In 1951 he produced the inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) and began  preliminary testing in 1952. Around 1.8 million children were involved in the trials in addition to  himself, his wife, and their three children. At last, Salk’s polio vaccine was announced as safe  for inoculation in 1955.  

Despite his death in 1995, Jonas Salk’s legacy continues to safeguard society against the  poliovirus. There have been no cases of polio originating in the U.S. since 1979, and 92.6  percent of children born in the country receive the inactivated polio vaccine by age 24 months.  In order to commemorate Salk’s work, World Polio Day is celebrated every year on his birthday,  October 28th. However, this day celebrates more than a man who ended an epidemic; it  celebrates a man who inspires scientists to strive for advancement in the name of progress and altruism.