Great Inventors: Jonas Salk [The Man Who Discovered the Polio Vaccine]

April 12, 2017

Great Inventors: Jonas Salk [The Man Who Discovered the Polio Vaccine]

Ever heard of Jonas Salk? Well, if the name rings a bell it’s probably because you studied him briefly in high school history class. Salk is the guy responsible for ridding the world (for the most part) of polio – a viral disease that mostly affected children and led to paralysis. 

According to PBS, “This infectious viral disease attacks the nerve cells and sometimes the central nervous system, often causing muscle wasting and paralysis and even death. Since 1900 there had been cycles of epidemics, each seeming to get stronger and more disastrous. The disease, whose early symptoms are like the flu, struck mostly children, although adults, including Franklin Roosevelt, caught it too.”

Dr. Jonas Salk was born in New York City in 1914 and earned his M.D. from NYU in 1939. He then went on to study flu viruses for a period with Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. His studies under Dr. Francis Jr. would prove instrumental in laying the bedrock of medicinal knowledge that helped Salk accomplish his feat.

Dr. Jonas Salk Invents the Polio Vaccine [1947-1955]

Dr. Salk’s work with polio began in earnest when he accepted a position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947. While at Pittsburgh, he initiated his research on polio.

Dr. Jonas Salk’s research moved at a rapid pace. By 1951 he had discovered that the thousands of polio cases were all caused by one of three distinct types of virus. By 1952, Salk’s investigations into a vaccine that could fight back against these three “types” of viruses were underway. The general idea, as will all vaccines, was to expose the body to a small amount of the disease, triggering the body to produce antibodies that would destroy the real thing if and when the body came into contact with the virus.

Unlike many vaccines, where a live sample of the virus is used in said virus’ vaccine, Salk opted to use a “killed” version of the polio virus in his vaccine. A live-virus version would follow a few short years after Salk’s initial discovery.

Salk faced criticism from his contemporaries during his research for not pursuing a live-virus vaccine. Albert Sabin, the man who created the live-virus version after Salk, criticized Salk’s work at the time, saying that Salk was a “mere kitchen chemist.” This insult would prove surprisingly apt and somewhat prescient, as we will see.

By 1952, Salk had discovered his vaccine and began animal testing. After testing his new vaccine on thousands of monkeys with successful results he wanted to move on to human testing. This proved more difficult than anticipated. Due to a handful of children’s deaths from previous clinical tests for polio vaccines, he struggled to gain approval to initiate human clinical trials. But Salk was certain of his discovery and the benefit it would bring to the world.

This is where Dr. Jonas Salk’s story takes an interesting turn. Instead of waiting patiently for approval to begin human trials, Salk boiled a couple needles and syringes on his kitchen stove to sterilize them and shot up himself and his family with the vaccine to prove its validity.

Talk about a ballsy move!

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Salk proudly announced via radio the success of his unorthodox human trials.

Following Salk’s home trials, official clinical studies on humans began on April 26, 1954. By the summer, over 1.8 million people had volunteered and participated in the studies, making it the largest clinical trial ever at that time.

The studies also included another first. They were the first clinical studies ever to use the double-blind method of testing, whereby neither the patient nor doctor knew which syringe contained the actual vaccine versus the placebo. 

By 1955, after the vaccine had received approval for public inoculations, Salk had cemented his place in history as a hero of medicine.

A Post-Polio World: The Effects of Salk’s Vaccine

Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine proved revolutionary in its success. In 1952, there were over 57,000 cases of polio in the United States alone. Within ten years, the total amount of polio cases had fallen to less than 1,000!

What’s even more impressive about the great Dr. Jonas Salk was his refusal to patent and profit off the vaccine.

According to PBS, when asked by CBS news about who owned the vaccine’s patent, Salk responded, ““Well, the people, I would say,” said Salk in light of the millions of charitable donations raised by the March of Dimes that funded the vaccine’s research and field testing. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?””

Salk’s nobility and contributions to humanity cannot be overstated. And he didn’t stop his work after discovering the polio vaccine either. In 1963, he opened the Salk Center for Biological Studies, which focused on finding cures from multiple sclerosis to cancer. In his later days, Salk also contributed to the effort to combat HIV and AIDS.

Dr. Jonas Salk is a shining example of an inventor or sought to make the world a better place. Every inventor could learn a thing or two from Salk’s generous spirit and tenacity.

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