WHILE I WAS attending the University of California at San Diego, the singular view beckoned. There, just a block’s walk away, was the Salk Institute, perched like a pearl above the Pacific. There, as if squatting before a runway, you could watch people sprint and hurl themselves off the cliff top, sometimes dipping precipitously toward the waves, over and down…till the Western gusts breathed new life beneath the hang glider, and the curving and wind-carving thermal dance began.
Each such leap into the breeze seemed like not only an act of a certain courage, but also of confidence — that your limbs would not fail you now. And it felt perfect that these trips of faith were launched so close to the institute — named for the scientifically sure-footed pioneer whose vaccine saved so many limbs, and so many lives.
When I first began walking to the Salk site, in the ’90s, you could still spot the man himself there in La Jolla, in his 70s and several decades removed from his initial work that would land him on magazine covers as an international hero. His legacy was not only larger than life, but was also precisely about the fragility of life itself.
As so many tens of thousands of children suffered from polio into midcentury, his vaccine began as the stuff of dreams; by the mid-’50s, it was the substance of a profoundly life-altering reality.
Dr. Salk had begun his journey a coast away; he got his medical degree in 1939, at the New York University School of Medicine, and was working at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital before a research fellowship at the University of Michigan — with his mentor — beckoned. In 1947, he moved to head up the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Virus Research Laboratory, where he did the real groundbreaking work in his march toward a vaccine for paralytic poliomyelitis, or polio.
The goal, of course, was to trigger the body’s own defenses — so it would build immunity against the disease. Salk believed that antibodies could be produced by injecting not a live virus, but rather a deactivated (non-infectious) one.
At this point, enough necessary tumblers clicked into place. For one, the team of Harvard scientist John Enders solved how to grow the pure poliovirus in the test tube — a crucial step that enabled Salk’s effective experimentation with a “killed virus.” And then there were the needed funds — Salk got backing from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation).
In 1954, at least 1-million children — the Polio Pioneers — were tested across the nation (this followed testing that ranged from monkeys to Salk’s own family). The vaccine was announced as safe and largely effective on April 12, 1955.
“In the two years before [the] vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000,” according to the Salk Institute. “By 1962, that number had dropped to 910.”
Salk the overnight hero received a special citation from President Eisenhower, but he refused to patent his would-be lucrative vaccine (the Salk vaccine was eventually replaced by Albert Sabin’s cheaper “live virus” vaccine). On the day his vaccine was announced as safe, Salk told the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
In the ’60s, Salk built his La Jolla biological studies center — his “dream” institute — where he helped lead research on cancer immunology, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases, as well as on development of an AIDS vaccine.
Jonas Edward Salk was born on this day a century ago in New York. Google celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth today with a warm-hearted home-page Doodle — by gifted artist Mike Dutton — featuring a sidewalk gathering of grateful children.
Dr. Salk — who was married to social worker Donna Lindsay and later to artist Francoise Gilot (a past love of Pablo Picasso’s) — died June 23, 1995, at his La Jolla home. He was 80.
And there in La Jolla, near where nimble-limbed hang-gliders launch against the backdrop of the institute’s sun-bleached concrete, resides a memorial to Salk, the pioneer, the hero, the icon. It reads: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
The words, like the achievements, are his.