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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 355

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Underneath this fallen tree is the grave of Jonas Salk.

Born in 1914 in New York City to Jewish parents, Salk at first lived a pretty normal life for that time and class. His father was born in the U.S., his mom had immigrated from Russia and the family lived in East Harlem, the Bronx, and Queens at various times. But he showed enormous potential as a young boy and was sent to a special high school for the gifted at the age of 13. He succeeded in the brutally hard program of this school, designed for the most talented kids of the immigrant class, and then graduated from City College in 1934 with a degree in chemistry. He wanted to become a lawyer, but his mother begged him to go to medical school instead. So he entered NYU to study medicine, which made sense because most of the better schools either didn’t accept Jews or had strict quotas upon them. He continued to have little interest in becoming a doctor and instead was focused on lab research. He became extremely interested in viruses and vaccinations, believing that a career working on public health would allow him to do what he was really interested in: studying and helping people.

Salk got his own lab at the University of Pittsburgh, but hated it there because the lab was poor and the university a pain to work for. So when Harry Weaver, the director of research at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, contacted him to see if he would work on polio, he jumped at the chance. They gave him the resources he required to start up and then he started receiving major grants for it. He developed a vaccination based on a killed-version of the virus. Of course he needed test subjects. It was the early 1950s. So he used the students at a school for the mentally retarded. There’s the 1950s we know and don’t love. After none of them received polio, he was able to engage in a huge experiment by vaccinating 1 million children. None of them received polio either. The vaccine worked and a huge advance in public health was achieved. By 1955, polio was no longer a threat if children could get Salk’s vaccination.

Salk refused to patent the drug. That’s a remarkable thing. Estimates have suggested it was worth $7 billion. He didn’t care. In truth, a patent might have been a little difficult because of course it built upon prior research, but that hasn’t stopped a whole lot of Big Pharma becoming extremely wealthy over the decades.

Salk also became famous. He hated it. Despised it. All he wanted was to do his work. But he couldn’t. Even among other scientists, he was a superstar, a celebrity that would draw attention. On the other hand, he was a personable guy and liked talking to people, so he didn’t really turn down many opportunities either. With a return to the quiet life of research he preferred, Salk turned to helping other scientists. In 1963, he was able to open the Salk Center for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, a place especially for new scientists to develop their careers. It remains dedicated to research on viruses and immunology today. Salk worked there too, as well as Frances Crick and other leading scientists, and late in his career he worked hard to develop an AIDS vaccination, although he had trouble not only in figuring it out but with the insurance industry in getting product liability for it. Salk also wrote books on what he called “biophilosophy,” combining the sciences with the humanities in exploring the great unknowns of human and biological life. Ah, if only scientists in leading colleges and universities cared about humanities today. Yep, looking at you Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Meanwhile, idiots these days simply refuse to get vaccinations and thus their kids become a public health menace. There should be no exemptions for vaccinations except for children who medically cannot have them. The decline of herd immunity must be making Salk roll over in the grave.

Salk’s heart gave out in 1995. He was 80 years old.

Jonas Salk is buried in El Camino Memorial Park, San Diego, California. It is unfortunately not particularly uncommon to see downed branches or even trees in cemeteries, such as what happened over Salk’s grave when I was there a year ago. It’s also not entirely clear to me how often these get removed and cleaned up. I had to crawl a bit to get where I could take a picture.

If you would like this series to visit more scientists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carl Sagan is in Ithaca, New York while Richard Feynman is in Altadena, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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