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Jonas Salk Interview (page: 5 / 8)
Developer of Polio Vaccine
When you were working on the polio vaccine, was there a moment of discovery, or a moment of realization?
Jonas Salk: There was a moment at which we recognized the antibody response had been produced in human subjects. That was in September of 1952. We saw what I call a flicker of antibody response which was real and substantial. That was the first evidence that we were able to do in humans what we could do in animals.
How did that feel?
Jonas Salk: It was nice to know that we were on the right track. It was the encouraging sign, and it sort of opened the way. It's like seeing the light, you might say. Anytime you get a "yes" from a person or from nature, it is encouraging. It's affirming.
You achieved your success early on, which probably created a lot of jealousy.
Jonas Salk: Yes. I received an inordinate amount of attention and recognition, out of proportion to what was contributed scientifically. It came about altogether because of the relief from fear. It was a human response on the part of the public. But from the point of view of the scientific community, they would see it differently. That was an adverse side effect. But it also provided opportunities in other ways. These are the prices; one has to pay for the pluses as well as the minuses.
Since the success of the vaccine came when you were at a pretty young age, we might imagine that you walked into a laboratory and there it was. I'm sure it wasn't that easy. What things didn't work out that led you to what did work out?
Jonas Salk: As I look upon the experience of an experimentalist, everything that you do is, in a sense, succeeding. It's telling you what not to do, as well as what to do. Not infrequently, I go into the laboratory, and people would say something didn't work. And I say, "Great, we've made a great discovery!" If you thought it was going to work, and it didn't work, that tells you as much as if it did. So my attitude is not one of pitfalls; my attitude is one of challenges and "What is nature telling me?"
Now, some people might look at something and let it go by, because they don't recognize the pattern and the significance. It's the sensitivity to pattern recognition that seems to me to be of great importance. It's a matter of being able to find meaning, whether it's positive or negative, in whatever you encounter. It's like a journey. It's like finding the paths that will allow you to go forward, or that path that has a block that tells you to start over again or do something else.
Did such a thing happen during the studies with the polio vaccine?
Jonas Salk: The work on polio went rather smoothly, because it was following a smooth and simple path. There was one episode that occurred, after field trials, when the vaccine was licensed. Within a matter of two weeks after it was in use, there was a report of cases of polio caused by the vaccine. Now, there was no such encounter in the field trial, and it was only as a result of the vaccine from one particular laboratory, but not the others. Well, this was a source of immediate concern, a terrible disappointment, a tragic disappointment. When we looked into that, it became clear immediately that this manufacturer did not follow the procedures that were set forth. It was partly because of a disregard for the new principles that were introduced in order to make sure that the vaccine would be safe, as well as effective. This was an example of disbelief that it was necessary to go through the routine that was set forth.
That had some adverse effects in terms of credibility, which was not attributable correctly to the work I did. This was the exception that proved the rule that proved how right we were in the way in which we had proceeded. That was something from which it was necessary to recover. Our vaccine was suspended. Its use was suspended for a short period of time, reintroduced again after that problem was isolated and that vaccine was withdrawn. All the others were used and things then proceeded in the normal fashion. That's just an example of the hazards that one has to deal with, particularly at that level of experimentation.
You obviously had tremendous confidence in this vaccine. Was it nerve-wracking when you first tested this on humans?
Jonas Salk: Yes. What I had confidence in were the results that we had obtained as we went along. We had to understand how to destroy virus infectivity, so that we could do it reliably. Nevertheless, the first time that humans were inoculated it was a matter of some concern. Unknown events might have taken place, things that might have been overlooked. There was some apprehension until that phase of the experiment was over.
Before the field trial, I did a test in about 5,000 school children in the city of Pittsburgh which was of the nature to make sure that things did go well, before we went ahead and put this out on a much larger scale. And so, while it is true that we proceed on the basis of things that we know, about which we can have confidence, so to speak, that when you engage in human experimentation, you must proceed in a somewhat cautious manner and be prepared for the unforeseen and the unknowable.
[ Key to Success ] Courage
Did you try to keep the experiments a secret?
Jonas Salk: We didn't work at keeping the experiments a secret, but we didn't make it public. Obviously, it was being carried out in an institution, lots of people knew about it. But we were not about to announce in the press because that was not the style in that day. The press was much less sophisticated in this regard. I saw no reason to try to carry out laboratory experimentation under a spotlight, any more than I would want to have the press in my laboratory, recording everything that is going on. There was a good deal of human interest involved, but that was not the primary objective. It would have been distracting, as it is now. I still preserve that attitude.
We began studies in humans in July of 1952, and what we were doing was not known, generally speaking, until the end of January. There was a leak by Earl Wilson, the columnist for one of the New York newspapers, who heard of a meeting in which I spoke -- the advisory committee of the March of Dimes, to reveal to them what we had learned. Earl Wilson called Howard Howe, of Johns Hopkins University, thinking that it was his work that was referred to, because he had been carrying out studies in monkeys and chimpanzees. Howard Howe said no, it was not he, it was Jonas Salk. And that's how Earl Wilson got the story. That leak revealed that we had already inoculated human subjects, and the work had not yet been prepared for publication. So I quickly got underway, and within two months we had the results of the work published. Then everyone knew what was going on.
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