Jonas Salk:
A Life
Charlotte DeCross Jacobs
In the laboratory, he was a stickler for detail, not unlike the fruit-fly geneticists, or the early Alfred Kinsey (before he discovered sex) . . . when he was researching the gall wasp, which included "ninety-three species represented by more than 17,000 insects and 54,000 galls." (Kinsey collected over 5,000,000 gall wasps for the Museum of Natural History.)

Jonas Salk worked like that. It's known by the name of obsessive-compulsive. Some call it a "disorder."

Between 1951 and 1954, Salk and his associates typed the poliomyelitis virus that they had grown in the lab. The job was to avoid any possible future infection from the killed virus, so the protocol called for them to test the vaccine in some 20,000 monkeys, at a cost of some $1,300,000. One of his colleagues wrote,

    I know of no single problem in all of the medical sciences that was more uninteresting to solve . . . The solution to this problem necessitated the monotonous repetition of exactly the same technical procedures on virus after virus, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for three solid years. The number of monkeys utilised in this effort is legion. The physical effort expended by the investigators to cope with the struggles, dodges, and antics of this hoard of primates is almost beyond comprehension.

Imagine wrestling with 20,000 rhesus monkeys for three years.

When, at last, his vaccine was approved by an independent panel and released for production in 12 April 1955 --- exactly ten years after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt --- Salk learned what it was to become a man of international fame. The journalist Edward R. Murrow told him on that day, "Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you."

"What's that?" Salk asked.

"You have just lost your anonymity," Murrow replied.

"Church bells tolled, horns honked, and sirens rang out as the nation rejoiced. Some cheered; some cried. In department stores, loudspeakers blared out the good news. Storekeepers painted Thank You Dr. Salk on their windows.

Public address systems in schools, courtrooms, and factories called for a moment of silence. Churches and synagogues held impromptu prayer meetings. And the presses started rolling.

'POLIO IS CONQUERED' announced the Pittsburgh Press. 'VICTORY OVER POLIO: POLIO VACCINE WORKS!' blazoned the Chicago Daily News. The next day,

    when the sun came up , the phone started ringing. Magazine editors were calling for photo shoots, newsmen for private interviews. The mayor of New York invited Salk to a ticker-tape parade; the governor of California wanted to hire him as a consultant. A public relations firm guaranteed him a million dollars if he would sign an exclusive contract. Someone wanted to erect a statue of him.

At the beginning, he insisted that he should respond personally to all correspondence. At various places in this book, the author includes a selection of those messages that came into his office, some sad, some beautiful, some heart-rendering. But his main task, as he saw it, was to use his fame to build an institute that would try to dispel the schism between science and the humanities. For he had read The Two Cultures, cultures of which, C. P. Snow wrote, "have scarcely any contact at all --- the traditional non-scientific culture and the up-and-coming scientific one. They are startlingly different, not only in their intellectual approach, but even more so in their climate of thought and their moral attitudes." The thought of this schism resonated with Salk, and he essayed to create a place where the two sides could meet and communicate and come to a kind of peace. This was the impetus behind what was to become the Salk Institute.

He saw to it that it was built, largely using funds from the NFIP --- The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis --- and once built, he sought out famous scientists who would also be "humanists." His original idea for the Salk Institute was to bring the two disciplines together, although this kind of work was already being done by such altruistic operations as the Center for Study of Democratic Institutions, set up in Santa Barbara for Eminent & Worthy Thinkers. I recall hearing tapes of their discussions on local public radio: uniformly bland, uniformly sensible, uniformly thoughtful, uniformly sleep-inducing.

Salk wanted to merge art and science on a grander scale, and brought in the likes of Francis Crick, Jacques Monod, Leo Szilard, Leslie Orgel, Stephen Kuffler, Jerome Wiesner and Salvador Luria. Yet once he brought them on board, they tended to ignore him. One of his friends wrote that "he began to feel excluded from their coterie . . . The fellows thought him modest, friendly, and warm-hearted, yet no one called him 'wildly imaginative,' or 'one of the keenest intellects' or 'engagingly open.'" One friend said, "Jonas never quite became part of the group."

After he got it set up, all the Nobel prize winners and Leading Citizens he had hired on tried ultimately to figure out how to get rid of him, which they managed to pull off towards the end of the 1970s. Part of their problem, according to Jacobs was that they didn't like the fact that most of the world put him right up there with the divine. The other problem, only hinted at, was that Salk was not exactly a firecracker in speech and in deed. In fact, some of the readings here from his letters and notebooks and publications almost put this reviewer into a deep snooze.

And after spending several days with Salk in this thick and not unfascinating study, I figure that Salk's problem was that he was not only not much of a barn-burner, but that he was suffering from that ultimate existential American failing: that is, that he felt that he had suffered too much. This is never stated as such, but it underlies much of the text. He grew up poor, had a mother that owned him, and spent his early years toiling away at his education and at his scientific experiments and not getting stoned or drunk (or silly --- mother wouldn't have approved). And his day-to-day in the lab was not the kind of stuff you'd want to jaw about with him over a double martini before a fancy dinner.

Salk had insomnia; wrote much of his nights away in his journal, and from the quotes presented here, we get the picture of a tortured man: that is, a man named Jonas Salk . . . tortured by a man named Jonas Salk. Take the very last entry in his night book before his death.

It's mid-June, 1995. He is eighty-two years old. His scientific work has come to an end. He has been dispossessed from the very institute he founded. He wakes at 3 AM and writes,

    I must find a way to achieve the peace and serenity that I will need to make the most of a rich life experience . . . that now needs to become a life of greater fulfilment than disappointment. Can I turn all this around in one day? Can I do so in one week, one month, or one year? Can I do so . . . step by step and day by day. I shall try.

As one of my shrinks would say, after she threw a pencil on the floor. "Try to pick it up." So I reach down, and she says, "No. Try to pick it up." I couldn't and she knew it.

This book was of special interest to me. I got polio in the summer of 1952, just three years before the advent of his vaccine. Jacobs description of the early onset of the disease brought back some powerfully unpleasant memories for me. So I couldn't help but cheer on Salk's heroic efforts on the behalf of my peers. But for the first time it struck me how valiantly misguided it all might have been. Polio is ghastly: what it does to mind and body is horrific. But the work Salk did was one of inefficient utilisation of resources.

According to Wikipedia, "In 1952, during the worst recorded epidemic, 3,145 people, including 1,873 children, in the United States died from polio. That same year over 200,000 people (including 4,000 children) died of cancer and 20,000 (including 1,500 children) died of tuberculosis."

Polio was a romantic disease, much like TB in the 19th Century (think Chopin and that spot of blood on the keyboard). Polio became a poster disease because it usually hit the upper-classes --- Franklin D. Roosevelt was the prime example --- and, because of FDR's influence, millions of dollars went into the cure, money that could well have been spent on TB, cancer or, hell, poverty in general.

But the picture of brave children struggling with braces and wheelchairs hit people where it hurt the most (the pocketbook) so the March of Dimes was born and a cure was found. And Salk was the right man at the right time, the one who did it and, ironically, suffered much, perhaps too much, in the aftermath of his intense fame, suffering with what Fyodor Dostoevsky would have called an extreme case of "self-laceration."

--- L. W. Milam
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH