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Jonas Salk

Interview: Jonas Salk
Developer of Polio Vaccine

May 16, 1991
San Diego, California

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Early on in your career, was there someone who gave you an important break?

Jonas Salk: At the end of my first year of medical school, the professor of chemistry, Dr. R. Keith Cannon, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come to see him. I was quite sure that he was going to tell me that I was failing and give me some bad news. Instead of which, he offered me an opportunity to drop out for a year and work with him in chemistry, during which time I could have my first experience in research, and also as a student teacher, so to speak. Since my desire, from the time I entered medical school, was to enter into and to do scientific research, that was the break that I seized upon.

It was a difficult decision to make, because I would have to leave my class, be alone, and in a sense be exceptional for that year, and then return to anther class. Nevertheless, I had the courage to do so.

That was an important year. You got quite a lot of work done in that year, didn't you?

Jonas Salk: I didn't get very much work done, in that sense. It was not an accomplished year, but it was the year that initiated a process. That was what was important. It was not the product of that year, but the initiation of a process, setting out on a path. It's important to recognize that sometimes at a turning point, what's important is to let go of the way you were going, or the way you are, to explore a new direction.

It sounds like a risk that really paid off.

Jonas Salk: Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do. I like to say "nothing ventured, nothing gained." If I had failed to take advantage of that opportunity, I would not have known what I would have missed. That was the beginning of many similar opportunities which have come my way.

You mentioned earlier that you were not classically trained; you didn't have the Ph.D. Why did you choose to pursue your career in the unconventional way you did?

Jonas Salk: It was not unconventional at that time. At that time, medical scientists were self-made. Jenner, who developed the vaccine against small pox, was not specifically trained. Pasteur was a biochemist. There wasn't a particular pattern, which provided me with a degree of freedom. In spite of the fact that I did not have any formal training, I still was able to contribute in these ways, which allowed me to pick and choose whatever it was that I needed to know to address that question, bringing to bear whatever tools or techniques or knowledge I might need to obtain the answer.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk Interview Photo

You had phenomenal success in your work, but I gather there were some setbacks along the way. It seems shocking today, but you were turned down by a couple of institutes that you applied to after medical school.

Jonas Salk: In fact, my entering the field that led to work in vaccines came about as a result of my being denied an opportunity to work at another institution.

There are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get what you want; the other is to get what you want. And if I had gotten what I wanted, it would have been a greater tragedy than my not getting what I wanted, because it allowed me to get something else.

Tell us where you applied that you didn't get in.

Jonas Salk: I applied to a laboratory at a medical school that was interested in pathological disorders, diseases involving the immune system. I had also applied to a laboratory at Columbia University. I know how disappointed we all are, not to get what we want. But, the question is should that discourage us? That was not my attitude. My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that's how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that's not my inclination.

Did you ever doubt yourself when you got turned down from these places?

Jonas Salk: I would say evidently not. I was merely looking for opportunities. And it was the opportunity that came first. It was not a test of me. In some instances, I was aware that there was a tendency toward favoritism or discrimination.

In some instances, anti-semitism played a role. I always realized that was always a factor. In fact, I almost didn't get into medical school because of quotas at that time. So, I was prepared for other eventualities. I was already prepared to go to graduate school to study endocrinology, for example, if I had not gone into medical school. It becomes necessary to be prepared for alternative paths. There may be a greater opportunity when something is denied.

How did your work with the polio vaccine come about?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: After my internship, in '42, I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was there until '47, then went on to Pittsburgh, to be somewhat independent of my mentor. The opportunity in Pittsburgh was something that others did not see, and I was advised against doing something as foolish as that because there was so little there. However, I did see that there was an opportunity to do two things. One was to continue the work I was doing on influenza, and two, to begin to work on polio. That was a very modest beginning.

Within a few months after I arrived in Pittsburgh, I was visited by the director of research of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, asking if I would be willing to participate in a program on typing polio viruses. I had no experience in working with polio, but this provided me with an opportunity, just as the work on influenza did. So, I seized upon that opportunity. It gave me a chance to get funds, to get laboratory facilities, get equipment, and to hire a staff, and to build up something that was not there. It also would provide me with an opportunity to learn about how you work with the polio virus.

That experience was looked upon by most people as routine drudgery. It wasn't that way to me, because instantly I saw that there were more efficient ways of typing viruses than were proposed by those who set forth the protocol that I was supposed to follow. It didn't take long for them to realize that I saw the world differently, and that I could make things work more efficiently and effectively. In the course of that work, it became obvious to me that we had the ways and means for moving ahead toward vaccine development. We knew there were three types of the virus. John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins at Harvard had just grown the virus in tissue culture. I didn't delay. I didn't waste any time, just picked up these methods and techniques, and began to advance them even further ahead than those who initiated the work. By putting the bits and pieces together, I moved very quickly into studies in animals, and then on humans.

How prevalent was polio when you began your research? It's hard for people growing up now to get a feeling for what the world was like then? Who was it striking? How was it spreading?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: Poliomyelitis struck first at infants. That was why it was initially called infantile paralysis. But as hygienic conditions improved, the virus spread in the population in a different way than it did when hygienic conditions were poor. When hygienic conditions were poor, many infants died of diarrheal diseases. In the course of the infection that was spread that way, perhaps by exposure to sewage and unclean environments, they would very likely acquire the poliomyelitis virus infection, which, if it occurred in the first six months of life, would protect them against paralysis because of maternal antibody. After maternal antibody was lost, and the infection was acquired after six months of life, then paralysis would ensue. So at first it was an infection that would occur within the first six months to a year of life, or two or three years of life. But as time went on and hygienic conditions improved, they were spared the infantile infection, but were exposed later when paralysis could occur.

By the time the early 1950s appeared, about 25 percent of paralytic cases occurred in those 21 years of age and older. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt, who was a president of the United States, was paralyzed at the age of 39. And so at that time the age distribution had changed. It was a disease that was spread less by water supply or by exposure to fecal contamination. It was spread now more by pharyngeal spread, in the family context or amongst playmates - the secretions of the nose and throat. Because the virus would enter the blood stream, it would multiply in the intestines, enter the blood stream, and then it would enter into the nervous system, the spinal cord -- paralyze -- but it would also appear in the throat. And then, it could spread that way in schools, and amongst playmates. Well that's how it was spread. As far as the incidence in the early 1950s -- in the five years before the vaccine was available in '55 -- about 25,000 cases occurred annually. The highest incidence was over 50,000 cases in 1953, I think it was. And this gives you some measure of the concern because it would crop up anywhere, at any time, without any forewarning.

What attracted you to the notion of using a killed vaccine? That goes back to your influenza work, doesn't it?

Jonas Salk: Yes, the reason for pursuing the idea of a killed virus vaccine is very simple. Before the work on influenza, the effective vaccines were those made with what we call attenuated, or so-called weakened viruses. They have the capacity to infect, but they are less likely to cause disease. Now sometimes smallpox or vaccinia virus -- which is the same virus that is used to make immunization against smallpox -- would cause serious reactions, and sometimes fatal reactions. There was a rabies vaccine that was made from weakened viruses. There was also a yellow fever vaccine that had been developed that was a weakened virus.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk Interview Photo

The principle that I tried to establish was really that it was not necessary to run the risk of infection, which would have been the case if one were to try to develop an attenuated or weakened polio virus vaccine. And so it seemed to me the safer and more certain way to proceed. That if we could inactivate the virus that we could move on to a vaccine very quickly. Whereas, if you were dealing with weakened virus, you would have to demonstrate its safety eventually. So, that was the reason and there was a principle that was involved. You might say a scientific principle, a fundamental principle: choosing and preferring that which the safety which you could control, and the quantities which you could use. So that this is, in a way, a more scientific approach. Trying to work like nature, instead of imitating nature.

Therefore, I wanted simply to select a variant that was weakened, you might say.

At that time I was behaving like a medical scientist. Exploring the limits within which one could effectively immunize with a non-replicating, non-multiplying virus. So, it was not a matter of why I chose that. I was investigating to see whether it could be done -- and it could be done. And, then we determined the parameters within which, in terms of dose and quantity and duration and persistence, and what kind of immunity, if an immune response was required. And that way, I began to develop an understanding of the principles of vaccinology as applied to polio miletus as well as influenza. So, that was the attitude that prevailed at that time. It was not simply empirical. It was a theoretical experimental approach.

You got quite a bit of flack for that because no one had done it before, and you were going out on a limb.

Jonas Salk: I wasn't going out on a limb. The flack to which you refer is what taught me, very early on, not only about the human side of nature, but about the human side of science.

There are three stages of truth. First, is that it can't be true, and that's what they said. You couldn't immunize against polio with a killed-virus vaccine. Second phase: they say, "Well, if it's true, it's not very important." And, the third stage is, "Well, we've known it all along." What you are describing is the process that you have to go through when you come up with an idea that has not yet been tried or tested.

While it is true that this involves personalities, it also involves different ways of seeing. It was not a matter of a popularity contest, it was not a matter of anything other than that my curiosity drove me to find out whether it could work or not.

How did the criticism affect you personally? Were you hurt by it, or did you just plow on?

Jonas Salk: I just plowed on. Hurt? That's one thing. Being deterred is another thing. And so, while we prefer to have an open path, one thing you learn in life is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There's no way that everyone is going to agree and particularly if you go against the main stream.

Everyone at that time had their minds set on how they thought the problem ought to be dealt with, whether it was influenza or poliomyelitis or now even the work on AIDS. That's a characteristic of what I like to call the "evolutionary process."

It's unnerving to find that scientists who are bent on helping mankind get into these very bitter rivalries. Is that just a part of the field?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: The contradiction is in your assertion. You say these scientists have a bent to help mankind. That's not what their objective is. If that was their objective, they might approach it somewhat differently. That is not necessarily the case. The motivation that drives us to do what we do is different in each instance. You begin to understand, from the effect it has produced, what is the person's real motivation. There are two aspects to our pursuits. You have to deal with nature, as I do when I go into the laboratory and do an experiment, and you have to deal with the human side of nature, which concerns how colleagues or others will react. This is what piqued my curiosity early in life. It continues to pique my curiosity. That's what I think of as the human dimension.

It sounds like you have to develop a fairly thick skin in this field.

Jonas Salk: You have to develop a thick skin in life. It's not in this field only. You might think of the ideal of the scientists, the ivory tower, the idealist. That's true of some. And, I wouldn't guess as to what proportion. But there are some who are of that character, and there are some who are not. What comes to mind now, as I often think of this, it's like a sea gull syndrome. I call them sea gull syndrome. When I walk on the beach, I see the sea gulls, going out and getting a fish or a piece of bread on the beach. And the others go after him, that one, rather than go get their own. And so, I see sometimes that if someone does something and gets credit for it, then there is this tendency to have this competitive response.

When you were working on the polio vaccine, was there a moment of discovery, or a moment of realization?

Jonas Salk: There was a moment at which we recognized the antibody response had been produced in human subjects. That was in September of 1952. We saw what I call a flicker of antibody response which was real and substantial. That was the first evidence that we were able to do in humans what we could do in animals.

How did that feel?

Jonas Salk: It was nice to know that we were on the right track. It was the encouraging sign, and it sort of opened the way. It's like seeing the light, you might say. Anytime you get a "yes" from a person or from nature, it is encouraging. It's affirming.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk Interview Photo

You achieved your success early on, which probably created a lot of jealousy.

Jonas Salk: Yes. I received an inordinate amount of attention and recognition, out of proportion to what was contributed scientifically. It came about altogether because of the relief from fear. It was a human response on the part of the public. But from the point of view of the scientific community, they would see it differently. That was an adverse side effect. But it also provided opportunities in other ways. These are the prices; one has to pay for the pluses as well as the minuses.

Since the success of the vaccine came when you were at a pretty young age, we might imagine that you walked into a laboratory and there it was. I'm sure it wasn't that easy. What things didn't work out that led you to what did work out?

Jonas Salk: As I look upon the experience of an experimentalist, everything that you do is, in a sense, succeeding. It's telling you what not to do, as well as what to do. Not infrequently, I go into the laboratory, and people would say something didn't work. And I say, "Great, we've made a great discovery!" If you thought it was going to work, and it didn't work, that tells you as much as if it did. So my attitude is not one of pitfalls; my attitude is one of challenges and "What is nature telling me?"

This ideal, this idealized notion that discovery, so to speak, is just something falling into your lap! It's recognizing something that you might not have anticipated. Or designing an experiment and finding out that it fits within certain parameters, and you see what the patterns of the response are. And basically, it's entering into a dialogue with nature.

Now, some people might look at something and let it go by, because they don't recognize the pattern and the significance. It's the sensitivity to pattern recognition that seems to me to be of great importance. It's a matter of being able to find meaning, whether it's positive or negative, in whatever you encounter. It's like a journey. It's like finding the paths that will allow you to go forward, or that path that has a block that tells you to start over again or do something else.

Did such a thing happen during the studies with the polio vaccine?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: The work on polio went rather smoothly, because it was following a smooth and simple path. There was one episode that occurred, after field trials, when the vaccine was licensed. Within a matter of two weeks after it was in use, there was a report of cases of polio caused by the vaccine. Now, there was no such encounter in the field trial, and it was only as a result of the vaccine from one particular laboratory, but not the others. Well, this was a source of immediate concern, a terrible disappointment, a tragic disappointment. When we looked into that, it became clear immediately that this manufacturer did not follow the procedures that were set forth. It was partly because of a disregard for the new principles that were introduced in order to make sure that the vaccine would be safe, as well as effective. This was an example of disbelief that it was necessary to go through the routine that was set forth.

That had some adverse effects in terms of credibility, which was not attributable correctly to the work I did. This was the exception that proved the rule that proved how right we were in the way in which we had proceeded. That was something from which it was necessary to recover. Our vaccine was suspended. Its use was suspended for a short period of time, reintroduced again after that problem was isolated and that vaccine was withdrawn. All the others were used and things then proceeded in the normal fashion. That's just an example of the hazards that one has to deal with, particularly at that level of experimentation.

You obviously had tremendous confidence in this vaccine. Was it nerve-wracking when you first tested this on humans?

Jonas Salk: Yes. What I had confidence in were the results that we had obtained as we went along. We had to understand how to destroy virus infectivity, so that we could do it reliably. Nevertheless, the first time that humans were inoculated it was a matter of some concern. Unknown events might have taken place, things that might have been overlooked. There was some apprehension until that phase of the experiment was over.

Before the field trial, I did a test in about 5,000 school children in the city of Pittsburgh which was of the nature to make sure that things did go well, before we went ahead and put this out on a much larger scale. And so, while it is true that we proceed on the basis of things that we know, about which we can have confidence, so to speak, that when you engage in human experimentation, you must proceed in a somewhat cautious manner and be prepared for the unforeseen and the unknowable.

Did you try to keep the experiments a secret?

Jonas Salk: We didn't work at keeping the experiments a secret, but we didn't make it public. Obviously, it was being carried out in an institution, lots of people knew about it. But we were not about to announce in the press because that was not the style in that day. The press was much less sophisticated in this regard. I saw no reason to try to carry out laboratory experimentation under a spotlight, any more than I would want to have the press in my laboratory, recording everything that is going on. There was a good deal of human interest involved, but that was not the primary objective. It would have been distracting, as it is now. I still preserve that attitude.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
We began studies in humans in July of 1952, and what we were doing was not known, generally speaking, until the end of January. There was a leak by Earl Wilson, the columnist for one of the New York newspapers, who heard of a meeting in which I spoke -- the advisory committee of the March of Dimes, to reveal to them what we had learned. Earl Wilson called Howard Howe, of Johns Hopkins University, thinking that it was his work that was referred to, because he had been carrying out studies in monkeys and chimpanzees. Howard Howe said no, it was not he, it was Jonas Salk. And that's how Earl Wilson got the story. That leak revealed that we had already inoculated human subjects, and the work had not yet been prepared for publication. So I quickly got underway, and within two months we had the results of the work published. Then everyone knew what was going on.

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."

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?

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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.

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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.

How do you seethe role of teamwork in science? You've certainly gone your own way and had tremendous courage in your personal convictions, but you can't do it all yourself. How do you balance that?

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Jonas Salk: It was possible to do what I've done simply because others did see what I saw. You can have a team of unconventional thinkers, as well as conventional thinkers. If you don't have the support of others you cannot achieve anything altogether on your own. It's like a cry in the wilderness. In each instance there were others who could see the same thing, and there were others who could not. It's an obvious difference we see in those who you might say have a bird's eye view, and those who have a worm's eye view. I've come to realize that we all have a different mind set, we all see things differently, and that's what the human condition is really all about.

Therefore, since whatever we do has to be part of a team, part of a community, we have to attempt to bring together those who have the same conviction, see the same things. Then it becomes a matter of time, when one or the other will prevail. Fortunately, there is all this diversity, and if not for that, problems would not be solved. If everyone saw things in a certain way, and it was the -- quote-- wrong way, it would not lead to the path of solution. If we were to study the anatomy of success, then a great deal would be learned about the human attributes are associated with success. I think a great deal about that.

What are those attributes?

Jonas Salk: Well, I play with words. And at the moment, for some time now, I've been playing with the words that distinguish between what I call "evolvers" and "maintainers of the status quo."

The evolvers are people who cause things to change. The maintainers of the status quo do everything to keep things from changing. And, there I see differences in perception, differences in vision, differences in interpretation, and differences in temperament, in personality. The number of evolvers are much fewer than the maintainers of the status quo. And, amongst the evolvers, there are some who are initiators, some who go along with what other people recognize to be new or different.

I have come to associate the kind of success that you're referring to, to individuals who have a combination of attributes that are often associated with creativity. In a way they are mutants, they're different from others and they follow their own drummer. We know what that means. And, either you are like that or you're not like that. If you are, then it would be well to recognize that there were others before you. And, people like that are not very happy or content, until they are allowed to express, or they can express what's in them to express.

We know what that means. Are we all like that? We are not like that. If you are, then it would be well to recognize that there were others before you. People like that are not very happy or content, until they are allowed to express what's in them to express. It's that driving force that I think is like the process of evolution working on us, and in us, and with us, and through us. That's how we continue on, and will improve our lot in life, solve the problems that arise partly out of necessity, partly out of this drive to improve.

What role does instinct play in decision making? Has your gut ever sent you in a surprising direction?

Jonas Salk: I call that intuition. My last book is called The Anatomy of Reality; the subtitle is Merging of Intuition and Reason.

Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way. The both are necessary. The way I like to put it is that I might have an intuition about something, I send it over to the reason department. Then after I've checked it out in the reason department, I send it back to the intuition department to make sure that it's still all right. For myself, that's how my mind works, and that's how I work. That's why I think that there is both an art and a science to what we do. The art of science is as important as so-called technical science. You need both. It's this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.

What led you to make the tremendous investment of time in founding your own institute here in San Diego?

Jonas Salk: It was not founding my own institute, just to put it into perspective.

In the mid-'50s, soon after the work on polio was done, I put it then, "All of the problems of man would not be solved in the laboratory." Which was another way of saying that there is a human dimension to science. From what you've already heard, or what we've already talked about, you gather that I've had experiences that led me to that strong conviction. I also saw the need for fundamental studies in biology to help give us the basic background on which to understand about the problems of cancer, for example, or autoimmune disease.

Eventually I knew that the neuro-sciences were going to be terribly important. I also recognized that it would be necessary to address the human dimension as well, appreciating how much more morbidity and mortality is associated with war, with crime, drug abuse and so forth. And so, I thought that it would be well to consider establishing an institution that would be concerned not merely with nature, but with the human side of nature, not only with the molecular, cellular dimension, but what I call the human dimension. I thought if such individuals were to work together in the same context that we would begin to understand a great deal more, much more about these different realms by their commingling.

This is a unique institution in that regard, is it not?

Jonas Salk: It's a unique idea. And it was an idea that was articulated before its time. But now, it is so obvious that this is what's needed, that others are moving ahead in this respect. The institute has not addressed the human dimension directly, in the work it is doing at the present time, although it did in the beginning. But that will probably change. However, that was addressed in the establishment of the institute and the creation of this marvelous architectural setting, where people could do scientific work in a work of art, to see what would happen if you set up what I call a crucible for creativity.

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It was set up on the basis of an evolutionary philosophy, acknowledging that it would be here long into the future. It was designed to invite change both structurally and in the laboratories and spaces, and also organizationally, and in subject matter. So, without my being conscious of what I was doing, intuitively I was expressing something that might be thought of more in the realm of a work of art, which I attempted to do in a scientific and rational way as well.

The institute has been quite successful, in its way. I think it will be successful in other ways in the future if this philosophy continues to prevail. When I attempted to do what I did, people questioned it, and said, "Scientists work in laboratories, they look into microscopes, they work in basements." And I said, "Yes that's true. I did all that myself but I want to see what happens if you do the experiment the other way. How will we know what might happen, unless we try? That was part of the motivation.

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I also felt the need myself to lead a double life, because of my dual interests in nature and the human side of nature. I see myself as having some artistic and philosophical inclinations. And I tried to create a place for people like myself. I didn't find too many who fit those specifications, but a great many who liked being here, and who I think have been strongly influenced by the interactions that take place. It's only 30 years now since the institution began. It's still rather young in a long future, and all that will be revealed in time.

You certainly have attracted many of the greatest scientific minds of the time here.

Jonas Salk: Yes, but I would say that was part of the design. I was looking for people of size, of quality. The selection process at the beginning I was hoping would continue. That's how nature works, you might say, through the process of natural selection. Well, this process of selection is also part of natural selection.

What mystery would you most like to crack now? What would you most like to accomplish?

Jonas Salk: Apart from the work that we are doing on AIDS, what's of greatest interest to me now is an idea that I have written about and continue to pursue -- the idea of what I call "universal evolution." I see ourselves as the product of the process of evolution, and we become the process itself. I see the continuity from what appears to be the beginning of time, when pre-biological evolution took place, and biological evolution, and then when the human mind came upon the scene and the emergence of ideas -- accumulative genes, which I see as manifestations of the process of evolution at work on the gray matter. I am interested in a phase that I think we are entering. I call it "teleological evolution," evolution with a purpose.

The idea of evolution by design, designing the future, anticipating the future. I think of the need for more wisdom in the world, to deal with the knowledge that we have. At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge? I define wisdom as the capacity to make retrospective judgments prospectively. I think these are human qualities, human attributes that need to be brought out, need to be drawn upon, need to be valued.

How do you do that?

Jonas Salk: I think it happens by experience, by example, by recognition that we have these qualities and attributes. They have to be there to be activated. You can't put them in; it would require the equivalent to genetic engineering. What you see in living systems, and in genetic systems, is that the genes are already there, having arisen in the course of time, and when they are needed they become activated. If they had to be invented, the time would be too late. By the same token, I think that the people who are needed to help guide the future already exist. They simply need to recognize this in themselves, react to the opportunities that prevail, and also be valued and be encouraged. It's that very large, and as yet amorphous, rung that is of interest to me. I hope to articulate this, and see to what extent it makes sense to others as well.

Medically speaking, what do you see as the great frontier for the next generation?

Jonas Salk: To tell you the truth, I think the next great frontier is going to be the recognition and understanding of how the brain works. To develop, to cultivate, to maintain what I call "gray matter." We've been focusing on the molecular and cellular events of the genetic system, the immune system, the nervous system and the brain. It's that function of the brain that we associate with. I use the term "gray matter" simply to focus attention on the need to understand how our minds work, and how we can use our minds to better advantage for enhancing health, for enhancing the positive and reducing the negative.

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I could speak about the advances that you could expect in surgery, or the advances in genetic engineering, and the capacity to develop new vaccines, and ways of regulating the immune system, and about the hormones and peptides, and other reagents that can be used for improving brain function. But what concerns me most is how human beings behave. If you stop and think about that, this is perhaps the most critically important consideration. Not only for how we behave in the world and in relation to each other, but from a medical point of view, in terms of individual health and well-being. The responsibility we take for our own lives, whether it's that of a drug user, or of one who is at high risk of developing HIV or AIDS, or any other consideration that requires wisdom. It's in the human dimension, as distinct from the molecular-cellular, if I could make this contrast, trying to understand the whole, which is far greater than the sum of the parts. That is where I sense the need for a new kind of mind, for individuals who are integrators, as distinct from the reductionists, or reductionists who could integrate as well.

These sound like people in the evolver category.

Jonas Salk: Indeed. That's why I'm likely to call this next book The Evolvers, to help people recognize these qualities and characteristics which they possess naturally.

What personal characteristics do you think are most important for success in any field?

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Jonas Salk: The first thing I would like to point out is that each of us have a different purpose that we have to serve in the evolutionary scheme of things. We are not all equally endowed to do everything. When I speak about teleological evolution, I speak about the idea of "telos," purpose. Socrates said, "Know thyself," meaning, "Know what is the purpose of life that you are inclined to serve, that you are drawn to. Do what makes your heart leap rather than simply follow some style or fashion". Not everyone can or should be a scientists. Not everyone can or should be any one thing. People need to know what kind of purpose they can serve.

It's necessary to have a purpose in life. I would say that those who eventually end up taking drugs, that becomes their purpose, in an absence of any other purpose. So number one is to have a purpose. It can be different at different times in your life, as I see in my own life. Take good care of that purpose. Let that be your guide. This requires respecting our own individuality, our own uniqueness and that of others. The idea of being constructive, creative, positive, in trying to bring out the best in one's own self and the best in others follows from what I've just been saying. Again, I repeat my belief in us, in ourselves, as the product of the process of evolution, and part of the process itself. I think of evolution as an error-making and error-correcting process, and we are constantly learning from experience. It's the need to dedicate one's self in that way, to one's own self, and to choose an activity or life that is of value not only to yourself, but to others as well.

Some of your children are pursuing scientific research.

Jonas Salk: My three sons studied medicine. They are each doing something different with the background that they acquired. I am not practicing medicine, neither are they, but each of them is doing something that is connected with medicine. The one who comes closest to seeing patients is the youngest son, who is a psychiatrist. The other two are doing different things in research in one way or another.

You must be quite proud.

Jonas Salk: I'm pleased with them because they made these choices on their own. I tried to discourage them from going into medicine because I felt that it might not be the easiest way for them to express themselves individually. But they chose to do so. We have published work together, papers and books, and this relationship continues.

You have created this work of art in which some of the great scientists of the world come to work, and I can't help connecting that to the fact that you are married to a very fine artist. How has that bond affected your work?

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Jonas Salk: My marriage to Françoise has been extremely rewarding. It provides the kind of human experience with someone who is a very highly evolved person, with many dimensions, and it's not only her artistic qualities, but her qualities as a human being and as a powerful intellect. That has been one of the great good fortunes in my life and my career. Just outside the door, there is a montage that I just hung yesterday that was made by her to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Institute. It will be a limited edition that we have made available which will be used for fund raising. It's interesting to see how she has incorporated the double helix and structures of fourteen molecules in this marvelous work of art. It's been a very integrating experience to be able to blend your life with a person who has the qualities of both a powerful intellect and a magnificent artist, wonderful writer.

Has it been difficult to balance the personal side of life with the tremendous drive of your professional side?

Jonas Salk: My life is pretty well at peace, and the profession is more of an avocation. It's a calling, if you like, rather than a job. I do what I feel impelled to do, as an artist would. Scientists function in the same way. I see all these as creative activities, as all part of the process of discovery. Perhaps that's one of the characteristics of what I call the evolvers, any subset of the population who keep things moving in a positive, creative, constructive way, revealing the truth and beauty that exists in life and in nature.

You see a very clear connection between science and art, because you are seeing patterns and designs in a creative way that no one has seen before.

Jonas Salk: Oh, yes. That's why Françoise dedicated one of her books: "To Jonas, who possesses the art of science." And one of my books I dedicated to her, as someone who illuminates all life. As I said earlier, each individual has their own telos. Each of us has an art in us, which is what we should express, practice.

What problem confronting society worries you the most right now?

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Jonas Salk: I would say man's inhumanity to man. I think that this will require a bit longer in the evolutionary process, for the more humane aspects and attributes of human beings to be expressed, and the less humane to be suppressed, or not encouraged. We are our own worst enemy in that sense, and unless we cope with greed, inhumanity, and find a way to reduce those qualities and attributes and enhance the more positive, we will be fighting a losing battle. But I have the impression from the young people that I see that we may be seeing the flowering of humanity in that respect. I see weeds and flowers. I think of it in those terms, and we have to discriminate and distinguish between the two, to recognize and encourage those human qualities and attributes that are the more positive.

I judge things from an evolutionary perspective -- "How does this serve and contribute to the process of our own evolution?" -- rather than think of good and evil in moral terms. I see the triumph of good over evil as a manifestation of the error-correcting process of evolution. It is an attempt to get some distance from whence we have come and recognize that as we move into the future, it becomes necessary for us to think the way nature thinks. That's why I speak about universal evolution and teleological evolution, because I think the process of evolution reflects the wisdom of nature. I see the need for wisdom to become operative. We need to try to put all of these things together in what I call an evolutionary philosophy of our time.

Bless you for all you've done, and all you will do. Thank you.

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