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Polio's Conqueror


Dr. Jonas Edward Salk, inventor of the vaccine that freed millions from the terror of polio, won the undying gratitude of the American people but the scorn of fellow scientists who envied his discovery and the celebrity it brought him.

Some of Dr. Salk's contemporaries -- including the late Dr. Albert Sabin, whose oral vaccine eventually supplanted the injections developed by Dr. Salk -- were so infuriated by his success they refused to believe his vaccine worked. "It was pure kitchen chemistry," Dr. Sabin once said of Dr. Salk's invention. "Salk didn't discover anything."

Such pettiness seems inconceivable today. Dr. Salk, who died Friday at 80, accepted it philosophically, albeit with sadness: "There have to be people who are ahead of their time," he once said. "And that is my fate." He was always chagrined, however, by the professional jealously that robbed him of the scientific world's greatest honors: He never won the Nobel Prize, nor was he ever invited to join the National Academy of Science.

Yet outside the scientific community Dr. Salk was a hero to an entire generation. In his day he was a household name. Presidents lauded him. School children sent him thank-you notes. For as long as he lived, parents stopped him everywhere he went to praise him for freeing them from the fear of polio, the most dreaded scourge of its time.

He never stopped working. In his 70s, an age when most men are content to rest on their laurels, Dr. Salk announced plans to develop a vaccine against the virus that causes AIDS. He based his method on the same principles employed in the polio vaccine, using a killed form of the HIV virus to boost the immune systems of infected patients.

Most AIDS researchers at the time were concentrating on traditional vaccines, which prevent infection altogether. Dr. Salk's critics again lambasted him for methods they complained were hopelessly outdated. Yet eventually the concept took hold. Ultimately he succeeded in changing scientific thinking about AIDS, and other researchers began pursuing his approach.

Regarding the conflicting roles he was forced to play for much of his career, Dr. Salk once remarked, "What comes to mind is something that Edward R. Murrow said to me on the evening of April 12, 1955 [the night the polio vaccine was pronounced "safe, effective and potent"]. He said: 'Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you. You have lost your anonymity.' Well, you can see the nature of the tragedy. I've become a celebrity. That's contrary to what a person in the field of science is supposed to be."

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