In 1952, an epidemic was sweeping a post-war nation. 52,000 cases of polio were reported across the United States, leading to more than 3,000 deaths and over 21,000 cases of paralysis, almost all among children. Polio was on the rise, and the summer infectious season of 1952 in particular seemed insurmountable. A plague had covered a nation—a nation that had found a suburban post-war identity with quaint neighborhoods and full of children, and a plague that was not new, but was very misunderstood. Parents feared as these children became hosts and transmitters of a biological phenomenon that waged a new war on the United States.
One of these parents’ peers, the son of a Jewish immigrant, working-class family, rose up to find a cure for the disease, not for the sake of placing himself high on a pedestal, but with hopes to lift all boats with a rising tide. Jonas Salk would become a true, selfless hero in the hearts of the people as he worked to vanquish the formidable enemy that was polio.
Though they had little formal education, Salk’s parents insisted that he receive the best education he was allowed. As a Jew in the 1920s, many educational opportunities excluded him due to racial quotas. But Salk excelled in every opportunity he was given, making the most of his chances and working with dedication to receive a prestigious, highly coveted internship position as a resident physician at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York.
As president of the resident house staff at Mt. Sinai, Salk showed leadership not only through his standards of excellence in physical medicine and surgery, but also his efforts to promote solidarity and best practice amongst his classmates. He wanted his work, on all levels, to benefit humankind.
“Jonas Salk would become a true, selfless hero in the hearts of the people as he worked to vanquish the formidable enemy that was polio. He wanted his work, on all levels, to benefit humankind.”
After residency, Salk was once again faced with opposition, as many research positions were unavailable to him due to unfortunate quotas. But fighting against the odds, Salk sought out and received a laboratory position at the University of Michigan. After working in virology in Michigan, Salk pursued his dream to run and direct his own laboratory, taking a position at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he procured several grants through his hard work and leadership.
But of course, as history shows us, Salk’s journey had only begun. His successes at Pittsburgh only led to greater, groundbreaking endeavors. With each viral study or vaccine clinical trial, his calling became apparent. And when Salk was approached by the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to work on their Franklin D. Roosevelt-founded polio project, he knew this work to this point—his preparation and persistence—had led him to the most important work of his life.
The threat of polio was described as feeling “like the threat of an atomic bomb.” Its presence was potentially world shattering for many, and parents dreaded the season of infection, keeping their children away from parks, schools, and friends for fear of contracting the illness. Throughout the early 20th century, children thought to be infected were taken into strict quarantine, at times even preventing the families of children who’d lost their battle with the sickness from providing proper funerals for fear of further transmission.
Polio had a face—it showed on the braced and wheel-chaired bodies of thousands of children, and its image weighed heavily in the minds of thousands of parents. Salk—a medical researcher—desiring no attention to himself, would become the new face of polio. A young man who rose from a sea of talented researchers would take the responsibility of finding a cure on his shoulders.
As he worked to develop a safe and effective vaccine, he garnered the trust of the people. His fellow researchers believed in him, and the anxious eyes of the nation were upon him as he worked to also gain their trust. Thousands of donors sent in personal donations, from dollars to dimes, in hopes that their contribution might in some way further the research that Salk persisted in. These people, the ones Salk watched as their lives were being altered, or even taken by the illness, were the impetus which continually that pushed him. He was driven by the humanity he longed to serve. He knew that there had to be a solution, a cure, a method of prevention, and that hope drove him daily in his drudgery. Until finally, the nation collectively held its breath on April 12, 1955, as the results of the vaccine trials were read.
A celebration! Horns honked, strangers hugged each other, carillons sounded, and parents were brought to tears. A war had ended, and an elusive enemy could no longer incite fear in the nation.
With the assurance that this vaccine would change the world, thousands of inoculations were produced to reach far and wide to prevent polio. The potential for this vaccine to be a lucrative one was never in question. But when asked about holding the patent for the vaccine—the one he’d worked toward developing since he was a schoolboy, the one he gave years of his life and full volume of thought to—Salk gave only a simple, brief response:
The vaccine belonged to the people, he said. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
His was an investment in a life of uncompromising commitment.