“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. “
Jonas Salk’s father
blouses and had an
ment. His mother
had a lot of ambition
for her son. Jonas
seemed to draw up-
on both traits in his
“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 in-
terested in that. That's what motivates me.”
“I think I was curious from the earliest age on.
There was a photograph of me when I was a year
old [not this one here] 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 ob-
serve, and reflect and wonder. That sense of wonder, I think, is built into us.”
“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. “
But we can say. Salk had a largely absent father and a VERY ambitious mother.
Salk described his childhood of
being a time of extended waiting,
waiting to grow up and do great
things. Sort of like waiting for the
phone of adulthood to ring.
Left to right -
Brother Herman, be-
came a veterinarian
Jonas’ 1st wife Donna,
a social worker
Brother Lee, became a
Mother, Dora (Dolly)
Both Russian Jews
Salk went to City College
when he was 15, and
then NYU medical
In 1935 Yale medical
School received 501 ap-
plicants. 200 of these
were Jewish. Of the 76
people accepted, Yale
only took 5 Jews. Cor-
nell and others were
For Salk to apply to a restricted Ivy League medical school
would have been a career non-starter and he knew that.
Salk’s wife Donna’s father
was a wealthy Manhattan den-
tist and regarded Salk as so-
cially inferior by several
notches. He agreed to the
marriage only if Salk was a
doctor (to put on the wedding
invitations) and took a middle
name, which he did not have.
They married the day after
he got his M.D. degree.
They had three sons.
“Being Jewish was a deeply important aspect of my
father's life. I don't believe he was a member of any
Jewish organizations as an adult, but there may be
things of that sort that I am not aware of. He arranged
for me to spend a summer in Israel (Kaitz ba Kibbutz)
when I was 18, and I think supported one or even both brothers to visit Israel in
their youth. I think my father's sense of being Jewish had more to do with the
cultural/genetic heritage than with religion. I consider myself Jewish, but in that
same way (heritage, not religion). It was important to me (for reasons I don't un-
derstand) to marry a woman who was Jewish -- which I did. Our son, I believe,
considers himself Jewish -- again, by heritage, not in terms of a practiced reli-
gion; though some aspects of ritual have been important to him (e.g., lighting
candles during Hanukkah). Both of my brothers married gentiles. I think they
both regard themselves as Jewish, but I can't speak for them. I'm not clear how
their own children feel about their half-Jewish backgrounds.”
Statement by Dr. Peter Salk, Jonas Salk’s oldest son
Polio has always been with us.
Here is an Egyptian with a with-
ered leg and deformed foot. Po-
lio is caused by a virus and in
some cases can result in total
paralysis in a matter of hours.
most famous vic-
tim of polio. The
news media went
out of their way
to not show him
in a photo like
this and the pub-
lic’s image of him,
at the time, was
not this one.
How times have
The Roosevelt memorial has been criticized for showing him
with a large cape that obscures his condition.
Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” shows his neighbor, who had polio.
Today our image of polio is of
adults who had it back then.
Back then the public image was
of stricken children.
Cause was unknown
Public hysteria, fueled by
fund raising ads and im-
Small chance of getting
compared to other ill-
nesses, accidents, etc.
Although there was no treatment for polio
that would cure it, there was something that
would somewhat help the symptoms. Sister
She got enormous resistance
Kenny was an iron-willed self-taught Aus-
from the medical establish-
trailian WWI nurse, shown at right. She basi-
ment. Their approach —
cally invented the whole field of physical
braces and crutches, turned out
therapy and that was her way of helping polio
to do more harm than good.
victims. Body manipulation and exercise.
Although adults could get polio, the fund appeal was
based on emotional pitches about children. The money
raised was eventually channeled towards Salk’s research
labs. Sabin also was supported in his quest for a vaccine.
Entertainer Eddie Cantor coined the phrase “March of Dimes” on his
radio show. People were encouraged to send a dime to help fight polio.
The response was absolutely overwhelming. Posters were everywhere.
Some Inconvenient Facts
Polio occurs quite rarely compared to
other serious diseases or accidents.
Public hysteria was not based on facts.
Its media visibility was very much out of
proportion to its actual occurrence
Polio mainly hits children under age
of 3 (50% of all cases). Roosevelt was
not a typical case.
Of people who get polio only 1 in 200
experience paralysis, usually in the legs.
Very few ended up in an iron lung. 90%
have no symptoms at all.
During the 1952 US polio epidemic (worst year ever), about 3,000
people died from it. A tiny blip on a chart like this, if it were for
1952. Today 40,000 people a year die in car crashes, 65,000 from
poison and about 80,000 from infectious diseases (not polio)
A Bizarre Situation
Polio becomes much more common when
primitive sanitation is replaced by improved
Constant exposure to the virus in
primitive environments results in natural
immunity. With better hygiene, expo-
sure is delayed and infrequent, and im-
munity is lost.
Much better hygiene still is then need-
ed to turn this around, so that exposure
becomes very rare.
An interesting digression -
what was behind this exaggerated fear?
After the horrific war the country
wanted to live a safe, quiet, peace-
ful life with no strife.
In the early 1950’s the country felt that
there were scary threats to the hard-won
post-war stability and prosperity. UFOs
were sighted. Russia got the H-bomb, due
to spies here in our midst. Commies were
hiding under every bed. You did not
know who could be trusted anymore.
Disturbing elements were emerging in young people
Marlon Brando was in “The
Wild One” 1953 movie. The
media was full of fringe ele-
ments breaking the “rules” of
Your neighbor could be a secret commie.
Or, as in this TV show and movie, could be a
double agent— an undercover commie for
the FBI. These communist threats to society
were scary because of being so hidden.
Questioning someone’s patriotism
could ruin a career, as Nixon sleazily
The iconic 1952 movie “High
Noon” was a veiled reference to
the idea that a truly courageous
individual would stand up to the
paranoid “Red Scare” hysteria,
and Joe McCarthy’s House Un-
American Activities Committee.
Several people associated with
the movie were then blacklisted.
This time—1952—when “High
Noon” was released coincided
with the peak of the polio fear
During the war many women had left home to help with the war
effort (Rosie the Riveter). They also ran the household in the ab-
sence of men. After the war society (i.e. men) tried to stuff women
back into the home and into confining roles where happiness was
supposed to come from cooking and appliances.
Rosie the Riveter did not like
being stuffed back into the lim-
ited possibilities of the home.
Women had helped win the war and now did not want to
lose that independence and sense of achievement outside of
The 1956 book “The Organization Man” docu-
mented the rigid conformity that was stifling ten-
sions within the home and within society. The
pressure cooker being held here can be viewed
as a metaphor for problems ahead.
The real threat to the
“American way of life” was
not secret communist cells,
the Russian H-bomb, UFOs,
or juvenile delinquents or
beatniks. It was the unex-
ploded bomb that was brew-
ing of women’s lib (and also
black civil rights). The
deeper tensions in society,
and within the home, over
that may have fueled the Red
Scare and the polio hysteria
of 1952, as psychological
And now back to our story
Sabin and Salk didn’t
see eye to eye about
how to best make a
Sabin developed good polio vaccine.
Salk’s vaccine used
a vaccine that
dead polio virus.
contains live, but
Developing a new vaccine
was kind of like alchemy -
lots of trial and error instead
of systematic science.
American slaves in colonial
times knew about a type of
vaccination that was used by
witch doctors in Africa.
It is remarkable
that some ancient
practices are actu-
ally good medi-
cine and not just
scratch one’s skin
or make some
small cuts and rub
into it smallpox
oozings from a
Puritan preacher Cotton
Mather (1663-1728), famous
for his role in the Salem
witch trials, had a theory of
why this smallpox treatment
worked. He thought that if
you breathe in the “humors”
surrounding a person sick
with smallpox it would go di-
rectly to your lungs and mid-
dle of your body. But if in-
troduced through a scratch in
your skin it gave your body
time to marshal its defenses.
Quite a clever man, ahead
of his time.
There was intense rivalry between Sabin, shown here, and Salk over
who would first develop a vaccine. Sabin dismissively called Salk “A
kitchen chemist”. Sabin’s oral vaccine with live weakened virus eventually
won out over Salk’s shot with dead polio virus. Sabin too was Jewish.
One person involved in this race to produce the first polio
vaccine said that the choice would be between the “young
Jew” (Salk) and the “smart Jew” (Rabin). Of the two Salk
was far and away more media savvy. Any time photogra-
phers came to his labs he would
put on a lab coat even though
he was not involved at all in the
day to day lab work. Salk also
bypassed medical journals to
announce results directly to the
press. These and other grand-
standing actions made Salk
quite unpopular with his scien-
I hope that no Jonas Salk
fans get too bent out of
shape over this, but facts
Salk initially failed to
acknowledge the major
contributions to his vac-
cine by his close lab asso-
ciates, who did most of the
work and development.
This did not endear him
to other scientists, who
place a high value on
Sometimes life presents some re-
ally tough choices. Because of in-
tense public fears the polio founda-
tions decided to go with Salk’s
vaccine instead of Sabin’s because
Salk’s was already ready. A huge
field trial was begun.
Salk’s vaccine was the first success but was not quite as effective as Sabin’s.
On the other hand Sabin’s vaccine had live polio virus and there were a few
tragic mistakes now and then, with both vaccines, like the Cutter Labs screwup,
where some people got polio or died from a bad batch of vaccine. Today the
few US polio cases each year are almost all caused by the polio vaccine itself.
There were other risks with both vaccines — about which more later.
Despite these problems the verdict was in—polio vaccine was judged safe for use
Soon everyone was
lining up to receive
the Salk vaccina-
tion shot. Later
the Sabin vaccine
turned out to be
easier to adminis-
ter in 3rd world
countries, since it
is taken orally.
Salk became an instant mega-celebrity
and he was given the (figurative) keys
to the city everywhere he went. He
said that he did not like this publicity
and just wanted to work in his lab.
On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., of the University of Michigan, the monitor of
the test results, "declared the vaccine to be safe and effective. By the time Thomas Francis
stepped down from the podium, church bells were ringing across the country, factories were
observing moments of silence, synagogues and churches were holding prayer meetings, and
parents and teachers were weeping. 'It was as if a war had ended', one observer recalled.
Within minutes of Francis's declaration that the vaccine was safe and effective, the news of
the event was carried coast to coast by wire services and radio and television newscasts. Ac-
cording to Debbie Bookchin, "across the nation there were spontaneous celebrations, . . busi-
ness came to a halt as the news spread. The mayor of New York City interrupted a city coun-
cil meeting to announce the news, adding, 'I think we are all quite proud that Dr. Salk is a
graduate of City College.'":
April 12th had almost become a national holiday: people observed moments of silence,
rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired sa-
lutes, kept their red lights red in brief periods of tribute,
took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked
fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, at-
tended church, smiled at strangers, and forgave enemies.
Salk would not accept the ticker tape parade that NYCity
was urging on him, nor would he patent his discovery.
There are probably some
older people today who can
remember where they were
and what they were doing
when they first heard this
The long awaited break-
through had finally arrived.
With the country ecstatic
over this emotional catharsis,
Jonas Salk was treated as
some sort of god.
Salk had hit a scien-
tific home run and the
nation was cheering.
Only later would it become clear that
there were a few Frankenstein aspects
to what he had created.
Now it’s time to pop some illusions about the polio vaccine.
We are all mature adults here, right? As hu-
manists we should be immune to hagiography.
We can handle the truth here, I hope. The
much touted success of the Salk and Sabin vac-
cines is not what it seems.
1952 was the peak of polio incidence in the US. Salk’s vaccine did
not come out until 1955. By then polio incidence was way down, before
the vaccine was introduced. Greater emphasis on public hygiene aware-
ness plus perhaps a natural evolution of the epidemic had polio incidence
rates only 1/3 or less by 1955, when the vaccine came out, than at the
peak in 1952. Furthermore, around 1955 the medical definition of polio
was changed to a more restrictive class, so that there was a sudden drop
in “polio” cases around the time the Salk vaccine was introduced—just
due to this medical redefinition of what polio was. The vaccine worked
but was not by any stretch the miracle the country believed.
Big polio incidence dropoff before Salk vaccine was introduced
In 1998, after 18 years of the use of
the Sabin vaccine, the federal govern-
ment advised that only the Salk vac-
cine be used from that point on. The
Sabin vaccine is now no longer avail-
able in the United States. One prob-
lem was that the Sabin vaccine is de-
veloped by weakening the polio virus
by passing it through many genera-
tions of monkey kidneys. It turns out
that in the process it picked up a mon-
key virus—Simian Virus 40—that can
cause cancer in humans. This was not
known about until long after the vac-
cine was being used.
Having monkey virus attached to the polio vaccine turns out to be a very bad
idea. Simian Virus 40 was first discovered in both the Sabin vaccine and the
Salk vaccine in 1961. The more general controversy today about other vac-
cines is not completely without merit. 98 million Americans were given polio
vaccine containing this carcinogenic monkey virus from 1955 to 1963. There
are real hazards with vaccinations produced using non-human tissue cultures.
In 1994 studies showed that
tissue samples from victims of
thought to be caused by asbes-
tos exposure) were loaded
with Simian V-40 monkey vi-
rus. It has definitely been es-
tablished now, by labs around
the world, as a causer of some
types of cancer in humans. 98
million Americans were given
polio vaccine containing that same monkey virus.
Mesothelioma samples from Finland and Turkey show no SV40 virus
and those countries never used polio vaccine contaminated with SV40
virus. Recent research suggests that SV40 is also liked to some bone
and brain cancers.
Inter-species contact is
best left to the jungle and
not deliberately fostered in
the laboratory, while inad-
vertently producing mon-
key virus contaminated
Fortunately, this led to
much greater awareness of
vaccine risks and tighter
standards and quality con-
Mistakes still happen. In
March, 2010 a team of re-
searchers found that a chil-
dren’s diarrhea vaccine con-
tained pieces of pig virus.
The F.D.A. was alerted.
They had no idea what the
effect of this might be. Af-
ter studying the situation for
2 months the F.D.A. decided
that it was O.K. to continue using this vaccine. Who
knows on what scientific basis that decision was
made? Any long term effects of the pig virus would
take much more than 2 months to show up. This kind
of story is not that uncommon.
Good News after some
years of rigorous science
we now know that the
mercury preservative that
used to be used in vac- Bad News The F.D.A and Cen-
cines does not cause au- ter for Disease Control had no
tism. The mercury is no idea at all that the amount of
longer used and yet au- mercury being given in multi-
tism rates have actually ple vaccine shots to a child far
increased since then. But exceeded the amount of mercu-
ry they were saying was dan-
this could have just as
gerous from eating fish or envi-
easily turned out the oth-
ronmental exposure. Then when
er way. Mercury is very they did realize this they had no
toxic and we are just for- idea what the effect would be
tunate that this link to au- on a child. Tests had to be
tism has been disproven. done.
Public belief in the safety of vaccines is vital to public acceptance of
being vaccinated. Drug companies and governments therefore usually
try to suppress, or deny any news of vaccine dangers. The feeling is that
some casualties are unavoidable to promote the greater good, so these
dangers need to be denied or suppressed. Here is an example of a bogus
rumor that destroyed a whole country’s willingness to be vaccinated for
polio. In 2003 rumors in Nigeria spread that western countries were usu-
ing polio vaccine for geno-
cide in Africa, particularly
of Muslims, and that the
vaccine spread AIDS and
reduced fertility. Nigerians
would only resume being
vaccinated if the vaccine
came from a Muslim coun-
It doesn’t help that there are solid
facts to base very speculative ru-
mors on. A third type of polio vac-
cine (not due to Salk or Sabin), also
contaminated with some monkey
viruses, was used in a field trial in a
remote part of Africa in 1958 and
about 300,000 Congolese were vac-
cinated. Later genetic research showed that the AIDS virus
(closely associated with a type of monkey virus) first emerged into
the world in that same remote part of Africa just a few years later.
Coincidence? Most probably, but this is how urban legends pros-
per—piggyback riding on a veneer of facts. This can destroy pub-
lic trust in vaccines
There are often unin-
tended consequences of
It is a mistake to
think that we are in
good hands with the
F.D.A. or the Center
for Disease Control.
Of course people can look at the
same data and see it in different
Some will think that there are
unavoidable (but small) risks
with vaccination. Others will see
frequent incompetence and
sometimes a lack of solid sci-
Unfortunately high quality con-
trol is often incompatible with
affordable costs. Because of that
and lots of law suits, many drug
companies have gotten out of the
Let’s take a break now from our
streak of exposing the hazards of vac-
cines and return to the life of Jonas
Salk and what he did after his polio
Godzilla on a break
Of course Salk is
blameless in all of
this. Nobody knew,
back then, about the
monkey virus. But it
does illustrate the
“Law of Unintended
Salk remains a
model of a humane
for ways to improve
the lot of humanity.
Some advances in public
health, like the invention of
the Heimlich Maneuver, do
not require much time or ef-
Salk, however, was a work
demon with very long hours
for many years in his quest.
Later in life Salk founded the Salk In-
stitute for medical research. He contin-
ued an active research there himself in a
search for other vaccines, like one for
AIDS. He also spoke out on larger is-
sues affecting humanity and wrote sev-
eral books on ethical themes.
Salk remarried. His 2nd
wife was the former wife
of Picasso (one of his mod-
els) shown in her youth on
the right here.
Salk Institute in La
Designed by famed
architect Louis Kahn.
Books by Jonas Salk -
Man Unfolding (1972)
Survival of the Wisest (1973)
World Population and Human Values: A
new Reality (1981)
Salk used his fame to promote, through many talks and
interviews, discussions about humanistic approaches to
Salk wanted to put his
great fame to good use. He
saw it as an opportunity to
have a public forum for pro-
moting humanistic values.
Linking success with good
deeds is what is in the news
these days, like with Bill
Salk thought a lot about
ways to promote world
peace and prosperity, from
his humanist perspective
Salk sought parallels between
the evolution of civilization and
the growth and evolution of cells
and organisms in biology, seek-
ing to use these parallels for in-
sights into the future of popula-
tion growth and other contempo-
rary challenges to human values.
After developing the polio vac-
cine, at a young age, he devoted
the rest of his life to further at-
tempts to improve the lot of hu-