Jonas Salk: The Man Who Beat Polio

Jonas Salk is something of a scientific legend. He is the man who managed to first beat Polio.
Christopher McFadden
Jonas Salk1, 2

Jonas Salk became a national, and international, hero in 1955 when his polio vaccine was declared safe for general use. This event, almost overnight, put an end to the virus that paralyzed, and even, killed many children in the first half of the 20th Century.

Salk's contributions to science and medicine made the world a better place forever. No longer would polio be a serious threat to millions of children around the world.

Jonas has become a legend in his own time and continued making significant medical developments throughout his life. He died on the 23rd of June 1995.  


What inspired Jonas Salk to create the polio vaccine?

Jonas Salk became a national hero when he first developed a vaccine for the dreaded polio virus that was finally approved in 1955. Prior to this, the virus plagued the youth of many countries around the world.

Although it could affect people of all ages, children were particularly susceptible to it. The virus is very nasty and affects a sufferer's central nervous system that can cause permanent paralysis from muscle weakness - especially in the legs. 

As it happens, very young babies (between 0 and 5 months on average) benefit from a grace period as they are protected by their mother's antibodies sometime after birth. However, and rather ironically, as medicine and hygiene improved throughout the early 20th Century, fewer newborns were exposed to the virus. 

Polio, amongst other pathogens, is a frequent presence in human sewage for example. Due to this, older children polio sufferers began to become more common.

Probably the most famous polio sufferer in history was President Franklin Roosevelt. He contracted the virus at the age of 39 in 1921 and was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

He was but one of the thousands of other people who contracted polio the very same year. By the 1950s, cases of polio infection had risen to tens of thousands per year. 

1952 was a particularly bad year with nearly 58,000 reported cases. An estimated 3,000 died and 20,000 were left with mild to full-blown paralysis.

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Something had to be done. 

That's where Jonas Salk heeded the call. Working tirelessly to study the virus in detail, he managed to finally develop a working vaccine

Who owns the patent for the polio vaccine?

In effect nobody does. Salk even famously responded, after being asked this exact question in a 1955 interview, that “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

In effect, Salk was proclaiming the vaccine a gift to humanity. But it's quite as simple as that. 

Since the vaccine is made of something that is naturally occurring, a virus (albeit dead), it cannot be patented by a person or company. In fact, to this day, U.S. jurisprudence is still a little 'woolly' on this subject.

Although many patents are authorized every year in the U.S., the 1952 patent act (which is the base for modern patent law in the US) did not recognize a difference between inventions and discoveries.

The U.S. Supreme Court did make a distinction in 1980 that "products of nature", like the Sun, cannot be patented.  Isolating and purifying a product, however, may open up the possibility for it to be successfully patented.

When did Jonas Salk create a polio vaccine?

Jonas Salk began working on a polio vaccine whilst working at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in its Virus Research Laboratory. In fact, he almost single-handily built and ran the Virus Research Lab and strived to make it a first-class research institution.

Studying various viruses at the lab, his work on the polio virus caught the attention of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. They invited Salk to begin an intensive study of polio which they offered to fund.

He agreed, and by 1951 he announced that the virus actually took three forms, not one. 

Jonas Salk Polio
Source: SAS Scandinavian Airlines/Wikimedia Commons

Salk soon realized that it might be a good idea to produce a vaccine using dead viruses, rather than live ones. He had used the same principle to previously develop a vaccine for influenza. 

This was because, he reasoned, that it should be safer to use dead viruses, rather than live to prevent the risk of the vaccine accidentally causing a full-blown polio infection in patients.

But this had an inherent problem. Such a vaccine would need a large quantity of poliovirus as, being dead, it could not proliferate inside the host. 

Some of Salk's peers, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins managed to develop a technique to grow polio on tissue cultures in 1949. For this work, the trio was awarded the much-prized Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1954.

Salk immediately realized this technique held the key for his vaccine and quickly adopted it. By growing the virus in large quantities, and killing it using formaldehyde, he tested it on monkeys. 

Jonas Salk polio trials
Source: Yousaf Karsh/Wikimedia Commons

It worked, and the monkeys developed immunity to live paralytic poliomyelitis (Polio). Soon after, in 1952, Salk began his tests on human subjects.

He began by using already infected children and by testing antibody levels in their bloodstream prior to vaccination and after, was pleased to find levels had raised significantly. 

Building on this success, Salk and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began field trials around the US in 1954. Around 2 million tests were conducted on children between the ages of 6 and 9. 

Half were given the vaccine and the other a placebo. It was discovered that the vaccine proved to be over 90% effective.

It was finally approved for general use in 1955. 

For the first time, an effective vaccine had been developed for this debilitating disease. Salk became a national hero overnight.

11 facts about Jonas Salk

Here are some interesting facts about Jonas Salk (credit to Mentalfloss): -

1. His father was a clothing designer with limited education.

2. Salk planned to be a lawyer and serve in Congress.

3. Jonas was rejected from multiple labs after medical school.

4. He tested the polio vaccine on his own family.

5. Other scientists criticized his novel approach to vaccines.

6. He didn’t want to file a patent for the polio vaccine.

7. He disliked being a public figure.

8. He was the stepfather of Pablo Picasso's children.

9. He tried to develop cures for cancer and aids.

10. He wrote a handful of books about science and philosophy.

11. The Salk Institute for biological studies continues his work.

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