Historic Humanist Series

Jonas Salk, M.D


September 1995 & October 1998

In the 1950's, summertime was a time of fear and anxiety for many parents; this was the season when children by the thousands became infected with the crippling disease poliomyelitis. This burden of fear was lifted forever when it was announced that Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine against the disease. Salk became world-famous overnight, but his discovery was the result of many years of painstaking research. Salk was hailed as a miracle worker. He further endeared himself to the public by refusing to patent the vaccine. He had no desire to profit personally from the discovery, but merely wished to see the vaccine disseminated as widely as possible. In countries where Salk's vaccine has remained in use, the disease has been virtually eradicated.

In 1963, Salk founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, an innovative center for medical and scientific research. Jonas Salk continued to conduct research and publish books, some written in collaboration with one or more of his sons, who are also medical scientists.

Salk's published books include Man Unfolding (1972), The Survival of the Wisest (1973), World Population and Human Values: A New Reality (1981), and Anatomy of Reality (1983).

Dr. Salk's last years were spent searching for a vaccine against AIDS. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995. He was 80 years old.


AHA Humanist of the Year 1976

Jonas Salk was born in New York City October 28, 1914. He earned his M.D. in 1939 from the New York University College of Medicine, and a Ph.D. from Hebrew University in 1959.

Dr. Salk's research was in immunology. In 1947 he became head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh where he worked with other scientists to classify three strains of polio virus. It was demonstrated that killed viruses could induce antibody formation in monkeys. Subsequent tests on children were successful. He published his findings in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" in 1953. A public trial of the vaccine in 1954 resulted in fewer polio cases. The vaccine has been in use since.

His books include Man Unfolding (1972), and World Population and Human Values: A New reality (1981). His many awards include the Humanist of the Year award in 1976, the J. Nehru award for international understanding, 1976, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977.

Dr. Salk worked at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, California until his death on July 23, 1995, on an AIDS vaccine.

--Mildred McCallister
The Humanist of the Year Book 1953-1991

Shortly after Salk's death two medical students were overheard:
"Did you hear that Salk died?"
"Who's Salk?"
"The inventor of the polio vaccine."
"What's polio?"