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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: 6 / 8)

Developer of Polio Vaccine

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  Jonas Salk

Can you describe the day that the results of the national trial were announced? That was a pretty big deal.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: It was on April 12, 1955, that the announcement was made by Dr. Francis, who had conducted the field trial. He was my mentor back at New York University and at Pittsburgh in the work on influenza. He had agreed to conduct these field trials for the March of Dimes. That was a very public event, and it was done with great fanfare. Many people were invited, scientists and non-scientists. It was held in Ann Arbor, staged by the University of Michigan, using this occasion to draw attention to what had been done.

It was then that I became looked upon as a public figure, and I had to fight and struggle to continue on with my work. It was a big event, and it was a time when the news was good. I was not on the outside, I was on the inside. I learned what it was like on the outside later. When people meet me even now, they remember exactly the moment when this announcement was made, and the events that followed.

There was a tremendous rejoicing, wasn't there?

Jonas Salk: I suppose so. There was a great rejoicing, obviously. Because of the freedom from fear, or the relief that comes from, "Now I know what to do in order to try to prevent the occurrence of this fearsome possibility."

How did you react to that instant world hero status? Were there tragic aspects to your loss of anonymity?

Jonas Salk: Yes, there were. I suddenly found myself being treated like a public figure, or a hero. I was no longer able to use my time altogether at my own discretion, but I made every effort to do so. And before not too long, things quieted down. From that point of view, it was a unique experience, not to be repeated again. It was not unlike the ending of a war, if you like. People often say they remember two things. They remember the polio episode and they remember Jack Kennedy's assassination. That is how these two things associate in the minds of people. That was the mood of the country and the world at the time.

I felt myself very much like someone in the eye of a hurricane because all this swirling was going on around me. It was at that moment that everything changed. It was Edward R. Murrow, the journalist and newscaster that said to me that evening, "Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you." I said, "What's that, Ed?" He said, "You've just lost your anonymity."

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Even today, there is debate about the vaccines. There was widespread use of Sabin's vaccine, beginning in the '60s, until very recently. As you know, it's been proven to be the leading cause of polio in this country. Did the AMA (American Medical Association) make a mistake in endorsing Sabin's vaccine?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: Well, it's a good way to put the question. The oral vaccine developed by Sabin is a live vaccine. That decision, that deliberate shift in policy, was made at a time when we already knew that the vaccine-associated cases were occurring, and I had a difficulty understanding the logic of that, I must say. Was that a wise decision? Should this simply have been allowed to proceed in a natural way without declaring any preference, and let nature take its course? If you look at the story in the Scandinavian countries, where the killed-virus vaccine was used, polio has been eradicated. Here we continue to have vaccine-associated polio, even though there are parts of the world, underdeveloped countries, where the live-virus vaccine is not working and the killed-virus vaccine is being used. In Israel, just recently, they decided to use the killed-vaccine first, followed by the live vaccine. I always find policies like that really political rather than scientific. They are using the killed vaccine to make the live vaccine safe. But do you need the live vaccine to make the killed vaccine effective?

It's clear now, from everything we know, that it is safer and more certain to vaccinate by injection than by mouth. I say it in that way to get away from "live" versus "killed." If you give it by injection, then you know what you are putting in. You know the effect that it is going to have, whereas if you give it by mouth, you don't know whether or not the virus is going to become activated in a pathogenic way, in the sense of causing the disease either in the recipients, or in contacts. We also know that in parts of the world where other viruses inhabit the intestinal tract, there are inhibitors that prevent the live virus vaccine from taking effect.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
I predict that -- in order to eradicate polio from the population so that you don't have to immunize against polio anymore, because you have eliminated the virus from the natural reservoir -- the killed virus vaccine will have to be used. It now is possible with fewer doses to produce uniform protection that is life-long. It wasn't believed to be so by others; I knew it was. So many assertions were made to discredit the use of the inactive virus vaccine which had no basis in scientific reality.

It's another place that I learned about the human side of science, the human side of nature. I've learned a lot, not only about the immune system, but about human systems. I have come to appreciate how the evolutionary process works. I see evolution as error making and error correction. Whatever errors were made are going to be corrected. In my own judgment, if they had not taken that position at that time, polio would have been eradicated from the United States much sooner. In a matter of just a few years, the incidence of the disease was reduced by 95 percent. The remainder would have been taken care of simply with time. The idea of shifting from one preparation to another had reasons that were beyond the realm of science.

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