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If you like Jonas Salk's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Francis Collins,
Gertrude Elion,
Paul Farmer,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
Louis Ignarro,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Robert Lefkowitz,
Barry Marshall,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
Oliver Sacks,
Thomas Starzl,
John Sulston,
Bert Vogelstein,
Dennis Washington,
James Watson,
Elie Wiesel and
Shinya Yamanaka

Jonas Salk's recommended reading: The Island Within

Related Links:
The Jonas Salk Trust
Global Polio Eradication

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Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk
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Jonas Salk Interview

Developer of Polio Vaccine

May 16, 1991
San Diego, California

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  Jonas Salk

Were you interested in science as a child?

Jonas Salk: As a child I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that. That's what motivates me. And, in a way it's the human dimension that has intrigued me.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Were you a curious kid, about nature and that sort of thing?

Jonas Salk: I think I was curious from the earliest age on. There was a photograph of me when I was a year old and there was that look of curiosity on that infant's face that is inescapable. I have the suspicion that this curiosity was very much a part of my early life: asking questions about unreasonableness. I tended to observe, and reflect and wonder. That sense of wonder, I think, is built into us.

It's often said that the curiosity and wonder of childhood is sort of beaten down in us as we grow up.

Jonas Salk: Yes, I don't think I shared it too much with others. I kept it pretty much to myself, and when I reached that age at which I could do something about it, then I did. So it was not suppressed or destroyed.

It's that curiosity that bursts in childhood, during the period of play and creativity that reveals what we're trying to say. That's the nature of the human being. That's what is the nature of the human species, as distinct from other species, where we see this enormous creativity because we are responsible for all that has been created, beyond that which nature has done.

Obviously, you were doing a lot of thinking at an early age. Did you get along with your classmates? Were you sociable?

Jonas Salk: I got along with my classmates, but I was not as sociable a child. I could spend time by myself and I still do. I would say that I spent more time alone than I did in social settings. Part of this was probably attributed to my mother's over-protectiveness, lest I hurt myself, or be injured in some way. How much of this is innate, and how much of this came about through that kind of nurturing, I can't say. Nevertheless, I did learn in time that I could spend time alone, as I do, walking on the beach. I spend time with others, of course, but also enjoy time with myself.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk Interview Photo

How did you decide to become a scientist? Did this happen in high school?

Jonas Salk: At some point, I recall having the ambition to study law, to be elected to Congress, and to try to make just laws, but I didn't pursue the study of law, for a curious reason. My mother didn't think I'd make a very good lawyer. And I believe that her reasons were that I couldn't really win an argument with her.

This change took place between leaving high school and entering college. I entered college enrolled as a pre-law student, but I changed to pre-med after I went through some soul searching as to what I would do other than the study of the law. My mother's preference was that I should be a teacher, but that didn't appeal to me. I was interested in science, and I began to think about the scientific aspect of medicine. My intention was to go to medical school, and then become a medical scientist. I did not intend to practice medicine, although in medical school, and in my internship, I did all the things that were necessary to qualify me in that regard. I had opportunities along the way to drop the idea of medicine and go into science.

At one point at the end of my first year of medical school, I received an opportunity to spend a year in research and teaching in biochemistry, which I did. And at the end of that year, I was told that I could, if I wished, switch and get a Ph.D. in biochemistry but my preference was to stay with medicine. And, I believe that this is all linked to my original ambition, or desire, which was to be of some help to humankind, so to speak, in a larger sense than just on a one-to-one basis.

Just as I intended to study law, to make just laws, so I found myself interested now in the laws of nature, as distinct from the laws the people make.

How did your parents react to your decision to go into medicine and science? Were they encouraging?

Jonas Salk: Well, my parents were more than supportive, my mother particularly. My mother had no schooling. She came to this country from Russia in 1901. She immediately, as a young girl, began to work, you know, to help support the family. And, she was very ambitious in a sense for her children. She wanted her children to have more than she had, so that she lived her life and invested her life, lived through her children.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo

I was the eldest of three sons and the favorite and the one who had all of her attention, certainly until my little brother was born -- I was about five years old then -- and my youngest brother when I was about twelve. I was essentially an only child in the sense of having her interest and concerns and attention. She wanted to be sure that we all were going to advance in the world. Therefore we were encouraged in our studies, and overly protected in many ways. There was encouragement in general, but not particularly in any way, because there wasn't the same kind of culture that could lead to a particular orientation.

What did your father do?

Jonas Salk: My father was a designer of ladies' neckwear: blouses and things of that kind. He was a more artistic person. He was a designer in the garment industry, so to speak. He had not quite graduated from high school, only from elementary school.

We were not brought up in a family which was already cultured. My mother's children and my father's children were the first of their respective generations that went on to college. So, there was something special in the household that was very nurturing for -- shall we say -- advancing in the world, getting ahead. But whether it was in business or in law or in medicine, so to speak, was not of great concern.

It's very inspiring that you didn't come from illustrious scientists, rather you can accomplish great things even if you are the first in your family to go to college.

Jonas Salk: Absolutely. There weren't any role models in my life, in that sense.

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