Jonas Salk

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The Book of the Week is “Jonas Salk, A Life” by Charlotte DeCroes Jacbos, published in 2015.

Born in October 1914 in East Harlem, Salk grew up in the New York City area. In 1942, he got a fellowship to study polio at the University of Michigan, that served as a draft deferment. The spread of influenza and pneumonia had caused ruined lives and a massive number of deaths in previous years, so health officials wanted to stem a similar kind of devastation in connection with polio. Unlike measles or mumps, the flu was found to have variants. Polio was also found to have variants, so making a vaccine for it was a complicated affair. Even so, in the 1940’s, medical researchers were permitted to experiment on human subjects in, say, mental institutions and prisons.

In 1945, Salk signed a contract with the drug company Parke, Davis that allowed him to collect royalties for the flu vaccine. In October 1947, he got to manage his own laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. His goal to was to create a polio vaccine in order to eradicate the fear of illness and deaths that was then plaguing ordinary Americans.

Salk was one of the first scientists to describe the-then idea of herd effect: during an epidemic, when a population became effectively vaccinated, there were fewer people to whom to spread the virus– the rest of the population, or herd. Therefore, disease-spread was greatly reduced. In the absence of an effective vaccine, disease spread like wildfire.

At his new employer, Salk chafed under a bean-counter and inferior resources. But he sold his soul and became a workaholic bureaucrat. He got the dean’s permission to renovate the place, in exchange for teaching classes and delivering lectures in serving the Pittsburgh community.

Salk tested whether mineral oil was a good adjuvant in a flu vaccine. This was a non-toxic substance added to the syringe to stimulate the production of antibodies at the vaccination site on the arm. An effective adjuvant would allow the patient to better fight the flu and a variety of other germs. Besides, it would dilute the vaccine, cutting costs.

By 1948, Salk had developed a reputation for explaining his work to laypeople at press conferences, so he was able to get funding to study how many types of polio virus there were. His belief was that inactivated (dead), rather than live virus cells in the vaccine-syringe could still be effective. Other alpha-male scientists disagreed with him. Live virus was riskier, because there was a small chance that even a healthy patient could contract or spread the disease.

By 1953, Salk’s research on monkeys and children showed that his vaccine was effective. However, “The press continued to incite the public; exaggerated and inaccurate reports created unreasonable expectations.” The public began clamoring for the vaccine. The clashing egos of polio research-scientists resulted in power struggles over how to conduct vaccination field trials.

The mid-1950’s saw a successful nationwide study on Salk’s polio vaccine that made him a celebrity. His wife and three sons lost their privacy. The press slapped Salk’s name on the vaccine, even though a rival scientist named Sabin aggressively pushed the live-virus vaccine that became the standard one used for decades across the United States from the 1960’s onward.

Read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about the history of polio vaccines (including the 1955 vaccine-making drug-lab mishap that resulted in illness, deaths and lots of scapegoats)– how hard it was to make them safe and effective and convince the public of same (hint: The chief reason it was so hard was that it costs money and scientists can’t do research without money, and humans are corrupted by money; also, scientists tend to have big egos and want to win a Nobel Prize).