Given that he’s one of the best known and widely admired heroes of science, Jonas Salk has occupied relatively little space on libraries’ “Biography” bookshelves.
You can certainly find substantial biographical entries online, and there are several books — mostly short, often aimed at younger readers — that focus pretty narrowly on his creation of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. But “Jonas Salk: A Life,” by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, billed as “the first complete biography” of Salk, fills a gap worth filling.
Salk was an interestingly complicated man: idealistic and unconventional, conceited but vulnerable, often described as mild-mannered but just as often as arrogant and combative. He worked to fight several great scourges of the 20th century: influenza, multiple sclerosis, AIDS.
But it was polio that made him an instant celebrity when his vaccine was made available in 1955, offering protection from a disease that was debilitating tens of thousands of Americans a year. A remarkable riff in a chapter called “Relief from Fear” lists some of the memorials and gifts dedicated to him by a grateful public: medallions, keys to cities, trees for Israel, a 209-foot-long telegram signed by 8,000 residents of a Canadian city, a silver plow and an Oldsmobile from a Texas town.
Movie stars came to visit, babies were named for him. But at the same time, Jacobs makes clear, Salk was rejected by fellow scientists who disdained his liking for the limelight and thought he had failed to give credit to other researchers. He spent years of his life, in one forum or another, fighting his colleagues.
Jacobs, a physician and professor emerita of medicine at Stanford, has packed her book with readable, often juicy moments. The disputes between Salk and other scientists are described as “vicious” and “back-stabbing.” She describes his 28-year marriage to a beautiful, multitalented woman, which ended in divorce, and his inability to connect with his sons; she gives details — the oddly cold negotiation/marriage proposal, for example — of his subsequent 25-year marriage to Francoise Gilot, who had famously been the longtime lover and muse of Pablo Picasso. She also recounts the many lovers Salk had during both marriages. And there’s his decades-long battle over the replacement of his injected vaccine with the oral vaccine developed by rival scientist Albert Sabin.