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If you like Jonas Salk's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Francis Collins,
Gertrude Elion,
Paul Farmer,
Judah Folkman,
Susan Hockfield,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Barry Marshall,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
Thomas Starzl,
John Sulston,
Bert Vogelstein,
Dennis Washington,
James Watson,
Elie Wiesel and
Shinya Yamanaka

Jonas Salk's recommended reading: The Island Within

Related Links:
The Jonas Salk Trust
Global Polio Eradication

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Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk
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Jonas Salk Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Developer of Polio Vaccine

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  Jonas Salk

Early on in your career, was there someone who gave you an important break?

Jonas Salk: At the end of my first year of medical school, the professor of chemistry, Dr. R. Keith Cannon, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come to see him. I was quite sure that he was going to tell me that I was failing and give me some bad news. Instead of which, he offered me an opportunity to drop out for a year and work with him in chemistry, during which time I could have my first experience in research, and also as a student teacher, so to speak. Since my desire, from the time I entered medical school, was to enter into and to do scientific research, that was the break that I seized upon.

It was a difficult decision to make, because I would have to leave my class, be alone, and in a sense be exceptional for that year, and then return to anther class. Nevertheless, I had the courage to do so.

That was an important year. You got quite a lot of work done in that year, didn't you?

Jonas Salk: I didn't get very much work done, in that sense. It was not an accomplished year, but it was the year that initiated a process. That was what was important. It was not the product of that year, but the initiation of a process, setting out on a path. It's important to recognize that sometimes at a turning point, what's important is to let go of the way you were going, or the way you are, to explore a new direction.

It sounds like a risk that really paid off.

Jonas Salk: Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do. I like to say "nothing ventured, nothing gained." If I had failed to take advantage of that opportunity, I would not have known what I would have missed. That was the beginning of many similar opportunities which have come my way.

You mentioned earlier that you were not classically trained; you didn't have the Ph.D. Why did you choose to pursue your career in the unconventional way you did?

Jonas Salk: It was not unconventional at that time. At that time, medical scientists were self-made. Jenner, who developed the vaccine against small pox, was not specifically trained. Pasteur was a biochemist. There wasn't a particular pattern, which provided me with a degree of freedom. In spite of the fact that I did not have any formal training, I still was able to contribute in these ways, which allowed me to pick and choose whatever it was that I needed to know to address that question, bringing to bear whatever tools or techniques or knowledge I might need to obtain the answer.

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk Interview Photo

You had phenomenal success in your work, but I gather there were some setbacks along the way. It seems shocking today, but you were turned down by a couple of institutes that you applied to after medical school.

Jonas Salk: In fact, my entering the field that led to work in vaccines came about as a result of my being denied an opportunity to work at another institution.

There are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get what you want; the other is to get what you want. And if I had gotten what I wanted, it would have been a greater tragedy than my not getting what I wanted, because it allowed me to get something else.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Tell us where you applied that you didn't get in.

Jonas Salk: I applied to a laboratory at a medical school that was interested in pathological disorders, diseases involving the immune system. I had also applied to a laboratory at Columbia University. I know how disappointed we all are, not to get what we want. 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. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that's not my inclination.

Did you ever doubt yourself when you got turned down from these places?

Jonas Salk: I would say evidently not. I was merely looking for opportunities. And it was the opportunity that came first. It was not a test of me. In some instances, I was aware that there was a tendency toward favoritism or discrimination.

In some instances, anti-semitism played a role. I always realized that was always a factor. In fact, I almost didn't get into medical school because of quotas at that time. So, I was prepared for other eventualities. I was already prepared to go to graduate school to study endocrinology, for example, if I had not gone into medical school. It becomes necessary to be prepared for alternative paths. There may be a greater opportunity when something is denied.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

How did your work with the polio vaccine come about?

Jonas Salk Interview Photo
Jonas Salk: After my internship, in '42, I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was there until '47, then went on to Pittsburgh, to be somewhat independent of my mentor. The opportunity in Pittsburgh was something that others did not see, and I was advised against doing something as foolish as that because there was so little there. However, I did see that there was an opportunity to do two things. One was to continue the work I was doing on influenza, and two, to begin to work on polio. That was a very modest beginning.

Within a few months after I arrived in Pittsburgh, I was visited by the director of research of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, asking if I would be willing to participate in a program on typing polio viruses. I had no experience in working with polio, but this provided me with an opportunity, just as the work on influenza did. So, I seized upon that opportunity. It gave me a chance to get funds, to get laboratory facilities, get equipment, and to hire a staff, and to build up something that was not there. It also would provide me with an opportunity to learn about how you work with the polio virus.

That experience was looked upon by most people as routine drudgery. It wasn't that way to me, because instantly I saw that there were more efficient ways of typing viruses than were proposed by those who set forth the protocol that I was supposed to follow. It didn't take long for them to realize that I saw the world differently, and that I could make things work more efficiently and effectively. In the course of that work, it became obvious to me that we had the ways and means for moving ahead toward vaccine development. We knew there were three types of the virus. John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins at Harvard had just grown the virus in tissue culture. I didn't delay. I didn't waste any time, just picked up these methods and techniques, and began to advance them even further ahead than those who initiated the work. By putting the bits and pieces together, I moved very quickly into studies in animals, and then on humans.

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This page last revised on Aug 06, 2010 13:23 EDT