Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

“Young man, a great tragedy has just befallen you,” newscaster Edward R. Murrow told Dr. Jonas Salk in the spring of 1955.

“What’s that, Ed?” Salk asked.

“You’ve just lost your anonymity,” Murrow replied.

Salk, a self-made medical scientist, instantly gained world fame with the announcement that he had developed an effective vaccine for poliomyelitis, a fear­some and crippling disease of mostly children. Fifty thousand new cases of polio were reported in the United States in 1953 alone. It was not uncommon to see both children and adults in leg braces. Newspapers and magazines pub­lished terrifying images of the “iron Lung,” a large tank-like capsule that kept alive paralyzed polio victims unable to breath on their own.

Jonas Edward Salk was borm in New York City on October 28, 1914, the oldest of three brothers. His father, Daniel B. Salk, was a ladies’ neckwear and blouse designer. His mother, Dora Press Salk, emigrated from Russia in 1901. Jonas Salk originally intended to study law, but his mother, although seeking to educate her children, discouraged him. “My mother didn’t think I would make a very good lawyer,” Salk said, “her reasons were that I really couldn’t win an argument with her.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1934 at the City College of New York, Salk attended New York University Medical School where he studied surgery and bacteriology. However, he temporarily dropped out of medical school.

“Dr. R Keith Cannon tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come and see him,” Salk recalled. “I was quite sure he was going to tell me that I was…instead…he offered me an opportunity to…work with him in chemistry, during which time I could have my first experience in research, and also as a student teacher.”

After completing his fellowship in chemistry, he resumed medical school. Salk pointed to his second year of school during a lecture when the seed for his historic research was planted. “We were told,” Salk said, “that for immunization against a virus disease … you could not induce immunity with the so-called ‘killed’ or inactivated, chemically treated virus preparation …. And I asked why this was so, and the answer that was given was in a sense, ‘because’ ….didn’t make sense and that question persisted in my mind.”

Upon graduation from medical school in 1939, he married Donna Lindsay and, like his father, raised three sons. Following his medical internship in 1942 at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, Salk joined Dr. Thomas Francis as a research associate in epidemiology at the University of Michigan. Salk’s theories proved successful with the development of the first killed-virus vaccine for influenza.

Salk was initially turned down by a number of research laboratories, including Columbia University. He did not have a PhD, which was not unusual for medical scientists at the time. Salk believed anti-Semitism was a factor in some instances. “I know how disappointed we all are, not to get what we want,” he said. “But the question is, should that discourage us? That was not my attitude. My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that’s how things work in nature.”

Salk found a little-noticed opening in Pittsburgh. “I was advised against doing something as foolish as that because there was so little there.” In 1947, he became the director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. A few months later, the director of research for the National Foundation of Infantile Paraly­sis (NFIP), founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio, offered Salk an opportunity to participate in a program to type polio viruses. (The foundation changed its name to the March of Dimes in 1979.) Increased funding enabled Salk to learn more about the poliovirus. In the summer of 1952, after growing three types of viruses and using formaldehyde to kill them, Salk tested a vaccine on children who had recovered from polio. Encouraged by the growth of antibodies, he tested the vaccine on himself, his family, and volunteers. The tests were expanded to five thousand school children in Pittsburgh and, in 1954, a nationwide trial of two million school children was launched. On April 12, 1955, the dramatic announcement of a polio vaccine was made by Salk’s mentor, Dr. Thomas Francis.

An oral vaccine, funded by NFIP, was developed in 1962 by Albert Sabin at the University of Cincinnati and virtually replaced Salk’s vaccine as the standard polio preventative medicine in the United States. Taken on a cube of sugar or in a small amount of liquid, ilie oral vaccine is relatively effective and inexpensive to inoculate mass populations. However, because it uses a weakened but live virus, it causes paralysis in one in 2.4 million people. In fact, the oral vaccine became the leading cause of polio in the country. Because the disease is no longer a threat in the United States, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended as of 2000 that only inactivated poliovirus vaccines be given to children. The Salk vaccine once again became the standard, although the ACIP still supports the use of oral vaccine in countries where polio is still a problem. Wild poliovirus (occurring naturally in the population) was eliminated in the United States by 1979 and in the entire Western Hemisphere by 1991, although there was an outbreak in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2001. The World Health Organization (WHO), working to reduce new cases from 350,000 in 1988 to less than 500 cases in 2001 in about ten countries, hopes it can declare the world free of polio by 2005. Currently, a $275 million funding gap must be filled to complete their objective.

In 1960, the citizens of San Diego, Cal­ifornia, approved a gift of land for the Salk Institute for Bio-medical Sciences. Salk’s continued work led to a modern array of viral vaccines, including one for hepatitis B. He researched multiple scle­rosis, autoimmune diseases, cancer immunology, and improved ilie manu­facturing process of killed-poliovirus vaccine. He was a founder of the field of psychoneuroimmunology that looks at how the mind, nervous system, and immune system work together. He pub­lished five books of essays in the 1970s on human life and evolution. In 1980, Salk joined the search for a vaccine for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The Salk Institute also researches diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, Parkinson’s disease, and plant biology. Jonas Salk died on June 23, 1995, at the age of 80.

Although Salk was modest about his accomplishments, millions owe their good health to his work in Pittsburgh. “It was possible to do what I’ve done simply because others did see what I saw,” Salk said. “If you don’t have the support of others you cannot achieve anything altogether on your own. It’s Like a cry in the wilderness …. Whatever we do has to be part of a team, part of a community, we have to attempt to bring together those who have the same conviction, see the same things. Then it becomes a matter of time, when one or the other will prevail.”