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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 (page: 2 / 8)

Developer of Polio Vaccine

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  Jonas Salk

Where do you think your sense of wanting to do something for humankind came from?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: I believe that this is part of our nature, and part of an ancestral heritage. That's how we got to be where we are, through people who performed or functioned that way, or had that drive, or the desire or ambition, which I look upon as a natural phenomenon. Some people are constructive, if you like. Others are destructive. It's this diversity in humankind that results in some making positive contributions and some negative contributions. It's necessary to have enough who make positive contributions to overcome the problems of each age.

It sounds like you felt a personal sense of duty to do something for the world. Was that something your parents instilled in you?

Jonas Salk: I have the impression that people like that are born as well as made. You are born with that instinct. Even if there is not encouragement, you overcome the resistances to any opposition, if that's the kind of person that you are. I think there is something inherited. We talk about the innate versus the acquired, about nature versus nurture. Our nature is revealed in the course of our life experience, and the nurturing comes from the opportunities that are available. If I were born in some other country, for example, my life would have been quite different.

When did you first have a vision of what you might accomplish in the field you chose?

Jonas Salk: You never have an idea of what you might accomplish. All that you do is you pursue a question and see where it leads. The first moment that a question occurred to me that did influence my future career, occurred in my second year at medical school. You never have an idea of what you might accomplish. All that you do is you pursue a question. And see where it leads. The first moment that a question occurred to me that did influence my future career, occurred in my second year at medical school.

Although, you must understand all of the events that occurred before -- laid the foundation in a way. And, if those events had not occurred, then that moment would have passed by quite differently. But, as I tell the story, we were told in one lecture that it was possible to immunize against diphtheria and tetanus by the use of chemically treated toxins, or toxoids. And the following lecture, we were told that for immunization against a virus disease, you have to experience the infection, and that you could not induce immunity with the so-called "killed" or inactivated, chemically treated virus preparation. Well, somehow, that struck me. What struck me was that both statements couldn't be true. And, I asked why this was so, and the answer that was given was in a sense, "because." There was no satisfactory answer.

It was in a sense a paradox. It didn't make sense and that question persisted in my mind.

I had an opportunity to spend time in elective periods in my last year in medical school, in a laboratory that was involved in studies on influenza. The influenza virus had just been discovered about a few years before that. And, I saw the opportunity at that time to test the question as to whether we could destroy the virus infectivity and still immunize. And so, by carefully designed experiments, we found it was possible to do so.

That was how that particular line of investigation occurred, and it influenced my career. I interrupted those studies because I graduated from medical school and interned. The war broke out, influenza was important, and I continued on in research in that field, developed a flu vaccine, and that led to all sorts of other things.

So, it started with you doubting something that everyone else assumed was true?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: I didn't doubt it. I just questioned the logic of it, the reasonableness of it, when other people accepted it. I just didn't accept what appeared to me to be a dogmatic assertion in view of the fact that there was a reason to think otherwise. So that it was not merely doubting a belief, there was a principle involved. I try to understand the laws of nature, the principles that are involved, and that's what I've attempted to do ever since then, in the development of what I think of as the science of vaccinology, which had not been a science prior thereto. I entered medicine with the idea of bringing science into medicine. I had the opportunity to investigate this question scientifically, thinking and working as a scientist.

I was not trained as a scientist. I was trained in medicine. And, so my functioning, you might say, as a medical scientist, came through being self-taught through the experience of investigating the questions that were of interest to me. And, I had no formal training as a virologist, or as an immunologist. But, I learned what I needed to know in order to address those questions.

I have tried to understand how viruses work, how viruses think, how the immune system works and other questions that pertain to my interests, whether it was cancer or immune disease, or multiple sclerosis, and now AIDS. But I am also interested in the human side of these issues.

Why do I see things differently from the way other people see them? Why do I pursue the questions that I pursue, even if others regard them as, as they say, "controversial?" Which merely means that they have a difference of opinion. They see things differently. I am interested both in nature and in the human side of nature, and how the two can be brought together, and effective in a useful way.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What books were you attracted to when you were growing up?

Jonas Salk: As a matter of fact, I was not a great reader. I spent a good deal of time thinking, as I still do, about what went on in my life, my own observations and reflections. I did read what was part of schooling, but I was not an avid reader. There are a few significant books that I recall: Microbe Hunters and The Life of Louis Pasteur. I remember reading, as an adolescent, a book called The Island Within by Ludwig Lewisohn. The idea of the "island within" gives you the sense of the resonance that this had for me, because of my sense of myself, and the dialogues that I had with myself.

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This page last revised on Jul 24, 2015 16:20 EDT
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