A Tribute To Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk

In the year 1952 there were 58,000 cases polio diagnosed in the US alone.  This was the worst epidemic of polio in the nation’s history, and as a result 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. The disease plagued the world, striking fear into the hearts of millions whenever an epidemic would appear.

Polio, An Insidious Virus That Plagued The World

It was a parent’s worst nightmare to find that their child could no longer move their legs and that their life hung in the balance from this insidious virus. The virus struck indiscriminately, caring not for one’s wealth or social class. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States suffered from the disease and often had to be propped up when making public appearances to avoid appearing disabled, which would wouldn’t work out so well with the electorate.

An Historical Scientific Collaboration

It was in 1948 that Jonas Salk, born on October 28th in 1914, began his work researching the various strains of the virus as part of project funded by the National Foundation For Infant Paralysis. From there he embarked on a seven year journey that would involve the assistance of 20,000 physicians and public health officials, 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers and over 1,800,000 school children to take part in the trial. This was the most ambitious and wide ranging collaborative medical endeavor in history.

“There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

It was seven years later, on April 12th, 1955, news of the polio vaccine was publicly announced, and Jonas was heralded by many as a miracle worker of science and medicine. This achievement alone would have marked Jonas Salk one of the heroes of the 20th century, but there was an element to to the man that transcended the rest. This vaccine could have made him incredibly wealthy, but there was never a thought of profit throughout all his work. During a television interview Jonas was asked about the patent, to which he famously answered, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” To Jonas, the vaccine was a gift to humanity.

This gives tremendous insight into the quality of the man. The sun grants us the opportunity of life on this planet, and the vaccine to polio granted the opportunity to millions throughout future generations to avoid the suffering and death inflicted by the terrible virus. It would be near unfathomable in today’s world for such an event to occur. Pharmaceutical companies are notorious not only for profiteering, but callously releasing medicines onto the market and pushing doctors to over prescribe them unnecessarily to drive sales.

The Legacy Of Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk’s contribution to ease humanity’s suffering did not stop there. In 1960 he founded the Salk Institute For Biological Studies, which to this day continues to be a center for medical and scientific research. In the following years he published several books, and his final years were spent dedicated on finding a vaccine to the HIV virus. He died on June 23, 1995, but his legacy as a pioneer in the field of medicine and a true humanist will endure throughout history.

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate such a man. Such people are rare, but they exist, laboring towards a better world without thought of profit or fame, motivated only by the desire to bring cessation of suffering to as many people as possible before their life’s flame flickers out. Thank you Jonas, the world will remember you. You made it a better place.

The below is an interview with Jonas Salk from 1985.

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