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Jonas Salk – First Person Who Developed Inactivated Polio Vaccine


Jonas Edward Salk was the first person who successfully developed inactivated (killed) Polio Vaccine (IPV) in the early 1950s.

For a very long time, Polio had been a dangerous disease that attacked and affected the human race. The disease is known to target the nervous system causing varying degrees of paralysis.

A larger percentage of those affected by the disease were children and especially infants. The polio virus was easily transmitted from one person to another, and this caused a major polio epidemic in the United States.

The first polio epidemic occurred in Vermont in the summer of 1894, and as time went by, new infections grew each passing year. This was a virus that could wipe out an entire human race.

How did humanity overcome such tragedy? Well, it is time to find out.

Jonas Salk who first developed Polio Vaccine
Jonas Edward Salk

Quick Facts

    • Full Name: Jonas Edward Salk
    • Known For: Virologist, Developing the First Polio Vaccine
    • Born On: 28 October 1914
    • Place Of Birth: New York City, United States
    • Died On: 23 June 1995
    • Parents: Daniel Salk (Father) and Dora Salk (Mother)
    • Education:
      • Townsend Harris High School
      • City College of New York
      • New York University
    • Profession: Medical Researcher and Physician
    • Spouses:
      • Donna Lindsay
      • Francoise Gilot
    • Religion: Jewish

Jonas Salk - Early Life and Childhood

Early Life and Childhood

Jonas Edward Salk was born on October 28, 1914, in New York City. His parents were Daniel and Dora Salk. Jonas Salk was born as the first child in a family of three sons to Russian- Jewish immigrant parents.

Growing up in a humble background is not easy; however, Mr. Salk, who worked in the garment district, believed that education was essential for a better world. Little did he know that his son, Jonas Salk, was going to be involved in making the world a better place for mankind.

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Lesser-Known Facts about Jonas Salk

    • Dr. Jonas Salk challenged the prevailing scientific orthodoxy by developing a ‘killed-virus vaccine’.
    • Salk tested the Polio Vaccine on himself and his family.
    • Jonas Salk did not patent his polio Vaccine.
    • Salk did not like the idea of becoming a world icon because of his work.
    • He had planned to study law and serve in the congress.
    • He was rejected from multiple labs after medical school since he was Jewish.


Jonas Salk was the first child in his family. He also had two other brothers, namely; Herman and Lee. The family lived at Elsmere Place, the Bronx.


Early education about the great medical researcher is not known. However, Jonas Salk attended Townsend Harris High school, which was a public school for bright students from humble homes.

Jonas Salk was always a curious student or a Perfectionist, so to say. He would read everything he could lay his hands on. Jonas Salk knew that education and knowledge was the key to changing the world and creating a good life for oneself.

Jonas Salk was a bright student who worked so hard to earn himself good grades that would guarantee him entry into City College of New York (CCNY). In college, he studied chemistry and earned himself a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1934.

Jonas Salk - Lesser-Known Facts

Did He Want To Study Medicine

CCNY had no research labs. The library was also inadequate. As a child, Jonas Salk never showed any interest in the medical field or let alone science in general. At CCNY, he worked hard to earn himself a chance at New York University (NYU) to study medicine.

Having a Jewish background made Jonas Salk face challenges such as discrimination, because of this, gaining acceptance into university was an issue. However, NYU was different as it did not discriminate against the kinds of Jonas Salk.

Why Research

While studying at New York University Medical School, Jonas Salk worked as a lab technician during the school years. He went to medical school with the sole aim of becoming a medical scientist, but with no intention of practicing medicine.

    • Did you know that he did all the stuff that qualified him as a medical doctor during his internship years? Thought you should know.

It was at the lab that Jonas Salk discovered his passion and place in the lab. He decided not to practice medicine, and instead got absorbed into the research team.

In 1939, Jonas Salk earned his medical degree from NYU and became a physician at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Jonas Salk took one year and studied Biochemistry and later shifted his focus on Bacteriology. At one time as a freshman, he got the opportunity to spend a year and teach biochemistry, which he gladly did. There was also another chance for him to further his studies and earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but Jonas Salk chose to stick to medicine.

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Laboratory Work

In his last years in medical school, Jonas Salk spent time in a medical laboratory at the University of Michigan that studied Influenza, where their main focus was studying the possibility of effectively destroying the virus.

In 1941, during his post-graduate work in the field of virology, Jonas Salk worked in the Thomas Francis laboratory at the University of Michigan. Francis had recently joined the medical school faculty after working for the Rockefeller Foundation. The two months at Francis lab was Jonas Salk’s first introduction to the virology world.

“I want to help humankind in general rather than single patients.”

The laboratory work gave him purpose and a new direction in his life.

Soon, Jonas Salk advanced to become the assistant professor of epidemiology. At Michigan University, he got the chance to reconnect with his mentor and friend, Thomas Francis Jr, who was now head of the epidemiology department at the university’s school of public health.

At Michigan University, the lab was working on an army-commissioned project to develop an influenza vaccine. Jonas Salk and Francis finally developed a vaccine that was soon widely used at army bases. Salk discovered and isolated one of the strains of Influenza that were included in the final vaccine.

In 1942, Jonas Salk became the Virus Research Laboratory director at the University of Pittsburgh School of medicine.

Virologist Jonas Salk who developed First Polio Vaccine

The March of Dimes

Jonas Salk gathered researchers to form a team that would help him develop the polio vaccine, including; Julius Youngner, Byron Bennett, L. James Lewis, and a secretary Lorraine Friedman. Jonas Salk sought grants from the Mellon family to help build a working virology laboratory.

March of Dimes was an organization that provided grants for scientific research on childhood diseases and disorders. The American charitable organization was founded as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US president believed in the work done by scientists, and he hoped with the right equipment and finances, there could be a cure for polio.

Through the March of Dimes campaign, the work of Jonas Salk was noted and supported. With this foundation, Jonas Salk began developing the vaccine that would later save mankind from the jaws of paralysis caused by Poliomyelitis.

The fear of the polio virus increased funding to $67 million by 1955. Research on dangerous live vaccines was stopped, and Jonas Salk adopted the use of killed virus instead. After a successful test on laboratory animals, it was time for human trials.

By 1951 Jonas Salk had identified that there were three types of polio viruses and that it was possible to develop a killed virus vaccine for the scourge that had threatened human existence.

In 1952, with the assistance of staff at D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children, Jonas Salk injected 43 children with his polio vaccine. A few weeks later, Jonas Salk injected children at the Polk State School for the retarded and feeble-minded.

This was great news to the research field, and so preliminary testing for the vaccine began in 1952. Over the next two years, national mass testing expanded, making this one of the largest clinical trials in medical history. A rough estimate of 1.8 million children known as the polio vaccine pioneers were given the vaccine during the test phase.

Believe that You Can Make a Difference

Jonas Salk had a strong belief that his vaccine could save mankind. He believed that his vaccine composed of ‘killed’ Polio Virus could immunize without posing the risk of infecting the patient. Jonas Salk administered his vaccine to volunteers who had not had the virus. All the people who had received the vaccine developed anti-polio antibodies and their bodies did not experience negative reactions to the vaccine.

Miracle Healer

In 1955, the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk was approved for general use. The name Jonas Salk became famous, and not only did Salk become a national hero in America, but he is regarded as a worldwide legend.

He received recognition from prominent leaders, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who gave Jonas Salk a special citation at a ceremony held in the Rose Garden at the White House.

First Person To Create Polio Vaccine - Jonas Salk

Look at the Numbers, they Speak Victory

The first few years had incredible results. The polio vaccine had a remarkable impact on the number of new cases of polio reported. With more than 57,000 in the US by 1952, a decade later the figure went down to less than 1,000.

Salk Center for Biological Studies

In 1963, Jonas Salk launched a research center of his own called the Salk Center for Biological Studies. He, together with other scientists in the research center put their focus on diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Jonas Salk continued his research into new viruses such as HIV/ AIDS later in his career. Jonas Salk was the director of Salk research center until 1975 when he became its founding director.

Jonas Salk’s Polio Vaccine is top on the list of essential medicine at the World Health Organization (WHO). It is considered as the most effective medicines needed in a health system.

Knowledge for Future Generations

In addition to his research, Jonas Salk wrote several books on philosophical topics as materials for generations to come.

Some of his works include; Man Unfolding (1972) and The Survival of the Wisest (1973), which was co-written with his son Jonathan.


Jonas Salk was married to Donna Lindsay, who was a social worker. The two got married from 1939 to 1968. The couple was blessed with the sons namely Peter, Darrell and Jonathan.

Jonas Salk had a second wife and artist Francoise Gilot who he married in 1970.


Jonas Salk received several awards and recognition from his contribution to the medical world. Some of these include;

    • Special presidential citation form Us president Dwight D Eisenhower (1955)
    • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Meritorious Service Medal (1955)
    • Elected to the polio hall of fame, a part of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute of rehabilitation in Warm Spring Georgia (1958)
    • Congressional Gold Medal (1975)
    • Academy of achievement’s Golden Plate Award (1976)
    • Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter (1977)
    • World Polio Day designated on October 24 in honor of Jonas Salk’s birthday (2012)
    • Honorary degree as a Doctor of Laws from CCNY

Invention comes with fame. Jonas Salk was not the guy for fame. His face was known all over the world. Airplane pilots would announce whenever he was on board, and passengers would burst into applause. Several hotels across the world would routinely upgrade him into their penthouse suits.

He so much wanted to get out of the limelight and get back to his laboratory. He had a great distaste for publicity, which he very much believed was inappropriate for a scientist. He, for a long time, did not like the public figure people wanted him to be. To him, he considered publicity as an invasion of his privacy.

Jonas Salk will forever remain the people’s scientist, who used his proficiency in the laboratory to end the suffering of mankind. He is the man who saw beyond the microscope. He was not out looking for only himself but the entire human race.

In an interview with media houses, he acknowledged that the people owned the patent. He said this while referring to the millions of dollars pumped into the research and testing of the polio vaccine.

While the entire world will always remember Jonas Salk as the man who stopped polio, Salk also contributed to advance in biology, philosophy, and even architecture. He advocated for the practical rather than the theoretical use of scientific research.

Famous Quotes by Jonas Salk


His unique Biophilosophy lead to the creation of Psychoneuroimmunology- which is the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease.

Jonas Salk described Biophilosophy as a biological evolutionary point of view to philosophical, cultural, social, and psychological problems. He believed that the drastic changes in the human population would bring new innovative ways of thinking about human nature and medicine.

Illness and Death

Jonas Salk died of heart failure on June 23, 1995, at his home La Jolla, California.

The world will always remember his enormous contribution to the medical field and more especially as the man who stopped polio.

Famous Quotes by Jonas Salk

“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within fifty years all forms of life would flourish.”

“It is courage based on confidence, not daring, and it is confidence based on experience.”

“There is no such thing as failure, there’s just giving up too soon.”

“Solutions come through evolution. They come through asking the right questions, because the answers pre-exist. It is the questions that we must define and discover. You don’t invent the answer-you reveal the answer.”

“I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more.”

“Risks, I like to say, always pay off. You learn what to do, or what not to do.”

“I have dreams, and I have nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams.”

“Life is an error-making and an error-correcting process.”

[Who owns the patent on this vaccine?] “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

“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.”

“Your dreams tell you what to do; your reason tells you how to do it.”

“Nothing happens quite by chance. It’s a question of accretion of information and experience…”

“As a child I was not interested in science. I was merely interested in things human, the human side of nature, if you like, and I continue to be interested in that. That’s what motivates me.”

“My job is to help people see what I see. If it’s of value, fine. And, if it’s not of value, then at least I’ve done what I can do.”

“Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way. They both are necessary.”

“I speak about universal evolution and teleological evolution, because I think the process of evolution reflects the wisdom of nature.”

“The art of science is as important as so-called technical science. You need both. It’s this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.”

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”



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