Jonas Salk (1914 – 1995)
Whilst some cannot resist the lure of making a tidy profit selling so-called cures for every day maladies, some see the improvement of public health as a moral commitment from which it is inappropriate to profit. The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Jonas Salk, stood firmly in the latter camp.
Thanks in no small part to Salk’s endeavours it is hard today to recall what a threat to the health of children polio was in the early to mid 20th century. It was a resilient disease, epidemics coming in waves, its victims principally children, and by 1952 it was killing more than any other form of communicable disease. It was known that the disease was transmitted by fecal matter and secretions of the nose and throat, entering the victim orally, establishing itself in the intestines and then attacking the brain or spinal cord but there was little progress on finding a vaccine.
Salk, a New Yorker, who was working as a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh got his big break in 1948 when he was invited by Harry Weaver to join the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to help find an effective vaccine. Money poured in to fund the research with many of the scientists engaged in research concentrating on developing vaccines from live virus. The results were disappointing and deadly – in one experiment involving live virus six children were killed and three left crippled.
Salk decided to take another route, concentrating on developing a vaccine using the safer killed virus. Tests were conducted on laboratory animals, successfully, and on July 2nd 1952 he inoculated 43 children at the compassionately named D.T Watson Home for Crippled Children and some weeks later more children at the Polk State School. To give added confidence to his vaccine Salk immunised, himself, his wife and his three children. The trials were extended to include around one million children, known as the polio pioneers, in 1954. The results were astonishing – no one who had received Salk’s vaccine became infected with polio and they all produced antibodies, those who had previously had polio generating the most.
On April 12th 1955 an announcement was made at the University of Michigan that the vaccine was safe. Such was the concern about polio that the event turned into a bit of a media scrum with 16 newsreel cameras at the back of the auditorium and Eli Lilly and Company reportedly paying $250,000 to broadcast the event. When the announcement was made, many in the auditorium broke down in tears in relief. Church bells rang and prayers were said. One shopkeeper famously painted the slogan, “Thank you Dr Salk” on his shop window.
Salk, a naturally retiring man by nature, was showered with honours and awards, his vaccine being described as a victory for the nation. More importantly, Salk’s vaccine was put into commercial production and within two years, by the summer of 1957, 100 million doses had been distributed across the States and other countries followed suit. Reported complications from administering the vaccine were remarkably few and far between and countries that adopted Salk’s vaccine were soon reporting that polio vaccines were a thing of the past. Other countries which had eschewed the vaccine still reported cases of polio.
Salk didn’t patent the vaccine – whether an application would have succeeded owing to the standards of the time is debatable – and when asked why, he responded, “Would you patent the sun?” For that Jonas, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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